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Free to be you and me (but please don’t make fun of my kid)

Nothing to get the week kicked off right like gender identity politics, a macho, conservative culture, and an almost-four-year-old boy, right?  Hold on while I have another sip of my cocktail tea.

I’ve been doing this parenting thing for a few years now and I still don’t feel like I have a great handle on it.  I guess no one really ever does, save for Dr. Sears or anyone else trying to promote their parenting books.  This is not meant as a dig at parenting “experts,” I’ve certainly read plenty of their books, but I am not sure anyone has it truly figured out.  If they did, we would all buy their book and be done with the worry, right?

For my part, I have tried to remain firm in my conviction that my son (and now daughter) should have every opportunity to explore and define himself by his own terms.  So, when he shows up dressed like this:

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Nothing like a tutu, light saber, Mardi Gras mask, peace shirt, and a pacifier

I smile and take a picture.  Too many times throughout my life I have acted according to others’ tastes and desires, at the expense of my own.  I want my children to feel free to let their freak flag fly, especially when they are still so young.  I recognize that if my son showed up like this to a business meeting, he likely would be fired (depending on what type of business he was conducting).  But I have plenty of time to squash his spirit later.

In all seriousness, I think it is imperative to let my children try on different personas now, even if they but up against or cross cultural norms, while they are safe to do so.  Then, when they come across something that resonates with them, they will know they are choosing it because it is a true reflection of their wants, passions, and desires (said by the reluctant attorney).

I do believe that it is also part of my job as a parent to teach them how to live within society.  It’s part of the reason I really love this book:

Imagehttp://www.lindakranz.com/books_only-one-you.php

It states, “Blend in when you need to.  Stand out when you have the chance.”  If you are put in the blender from birth, how will you ever know how to stand out or when is the right time?  You might have that need to stand out bubbling up beneath the surface and it might burst forth at a very inopportune time (trust me, I know).  Hence, you will often see my son sporting make-up (theatrical and my own), nail polish, tutus, glitter, sparkles, necklaces, and anything else that strikes his fancy.  He, of course, will be wearing all of this while conducting monster truck races in the front yard.  Don’t let his penchant for attention-grabbing decor fool you.  This kid is all boy when it comes to play.

I should note here for the record that since my daughter was born almost five months ago, I have worn make-up exactly five times, each time for work.  I don’t wear much to begin with, a little powder, a little eyeshadow, a little lip gloss.  I haven’t had a manicure or pedicure in at least six months.  I don’t wear much jewelry: a simple wedding band and the occasional earrings.  So, this is not my influence.  Moreover, my husband couldn’t care less about cars, trucks, or anything with an engine.  He cooks, cleans, and quite possibly spends more time caring for the kids than I do.  So, our son came into his love of all things with motors of his own accord.

Rewind to last night.  After trimming his toe nails, he asked if I would paint them.  I was happy to oblige, though a part of my brain, that lizard, fear-based part, started screaming, “You’ll be run out of town!  Remember that J. Crew catalog fiasco?”  “Oh, but it’s only his toes,” my zen-mama mind answered back.

So, I painted his toe nails four different colors at his request.  The first two on each foot are orange, followed by one red, one blue, and one purple.  And then he asked for his fingernails to be painted.  I panicked for a moment.

See, it’s one thing to let him go to preschool with his toenails painted because, there, they are hidden by socks and closed-toe shoes.  It’s quite another to put his painted fingernails on display for an unpredictable audience.  I do not see anything wrong with boys playing with make-up and nail polish.  It’s obviously fun, why else would so many men choose to dress up as women for Halloween?  Jealousy, anyone?  If more men were comfortable with their sexuality, none of this would be a big deal for anyone and we as a nation could focus on more important things.

Alas, I am not in the Bay Area anymore and I know countless boys in my area are being told that boys don’t wear nail polish or make-up.  Boys are tough.  Boys don’t cry.  Essentially, boys are detached from their emotions and their inner core, complete strangers to their own wants and needs.  Oh yes, we’re destined to raise happy children this way, aren’t we?

Anyhow, soapbox aside, I thought of my goal to let him express himself as he chooses at this age, no matter how flamboyant, as long as it is safe.  I thought of a psychologist in my writing group who is writing a book about cultural shame and how we unintentionally shame our children when trying to force them into a socially acceptable mold.  I thought of how he might be teased by other kids.  I listened to my heart for a moment and I said, “Absolutely.”  I did gently steer him toward a clear polish with gray sparkles (the most manly nail polish in the house), which is a little more subdued than any of the colors on his toes.

Here is the finished result:

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pretty nails

When I had finished, he looked at me, beaming, and said, “I am going to be the coolest kid in school!”  My heart sank.  While I wish with all my heart he would be received that way, we all know someone is going to tell him that nail polish is for girls.  Kids believe what we tell them.  Again, I struggled.  Do I say something and risk shaming him?  Do I not say anything and send him in to school completely unprepared for a potential slight?  What if I say something to him and I am wrong and he is in fact the coolest kid in school?  (I already think he is the coolest kid in school because he is not afraid to be who he is.)

So, I looked at my little peanut and said, “Honey, just so you know, some people think nail polish is only for girls.  I think they’re missing out on the fun, but they may not understand why you are wearing it.”

He looked at me a little confused and said, “Well, Mama, I think it is for boys.  I’m going to go outside now and look at the sparkles in the sun!”  Off he ran to do just that.

People say that parenting is like having your heart outside your body.  It is true.  While I want to be in the camp of people that think, “What’s the big deal?  It’s a kid wearing nail polish.  You really spent your morning blogging about this?” I know that in this truck-loving, man-brings-home-the-bacon slice of suburbia, that there is a decent chance my son will be ridiculed for his choice to be himself.  After all, some kid gave him a hard time when he wore a Batman shirt with a cape to school (apparently it was a pajama shirt and one is not to wear pajamas to school – I had no idea it was pajamas, but I would have let him wear it anyway).

It’s a struggle, though.  Am I creating problems for him by letting him live out loud because I didn’t?  Should I have said no?  Is he going to be more shamed by teasing (let’s face it, if it doesn’t happen today, one of these days it will) than he would by my saying that’s not what little boys do?  Where did my internal serenity go and how do I get it back?  I need a zookeeper to tame this monkey in my mind.

I will choose to see this as a strengthening exercise for both of us.  Parenting is one long process of letting go.  Growing up is one long process of learning to make good decisions and accepting the consequences of your choices.  Seems I am doing a bit of both today.

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10 comments on “Free to be you and me (but please don’t make fun of my kid)

  1. I’m with you 100%. Kids have the rest of their lives to have their creativity stifled, their wide open minds narrowed. I love the idea of giving them as much time as possible to look at the way their nails sparkle in the sun. Beautiful!

    • Thanks! If only we could continue to allow them a creative outlet as they grow. I guess that is one of the main benefits of blogging, though. He won’t always be able to wear nail polish to the office, unless he becomes a rock star, but he can write down his many-colored thoughts.

  2. Brilliant! Your kids are lucky to have you for their mom. No doubt your boy is emboldened for any ignorance that comes up the pike because you have so honored his soul.

    • Thank you so much and so sorry for my delayed response. I did not know I had comments waiting. Anyhow, I hope he feels affirmed and supported. We shall see how pirate/princess day goes, as he wants to be a pirate princess. Can’t say I blame him. 😉

  3. Great post. I often grapple with the same decisions raising my three boys. I’m a feminist to the core and as much as I try to steer them away from the gender stereotypical messages society bombards them with, I know eventually some of the messages will seep in. I feel as long as they know that at home they are completely accepted and loved for who they are, without ever being shamed, they’ll feel comfortable enough in their own skin in the long run to combat the man code.

    • Thank you, and I am so sorry for my delayed response. As I noted to Elle, I had no idea there were comments pending. Anyhow, first off, kudos to you for raising three boys. My one has so much energy it’s amazing. Three seems incomprehensible to me. But, it’s probably a ton of fun. And they are so lucky to have a mom that supports and fosters their individuality. And we as a society are lucky to have someone committed to raising boys who are allowed to explore who they are instead of being channeled into narrow roles so early.

  4. I love this post…as I started reading I was thinking “oh, I have to tell her about when my son asked me to paint his nails…” and then I read further! I liked the way you handled it and your description of your feelings on it. My son is 9 and earlier this summer he was watching my daughter and I paint our nails and he asked us to paint a few of his BRIGHT pink. I had that little nagging thought that it might not be a good idea, but we did it anyway because HE WANTED TO. As I said, he is 9 so maybe he has more ideas about what is “gender appropriate” than your younger son, but I figure if he wants to try it out, why not? A few times over the following days, he hid his hands in fists when he didn’t feel comfortable with people looing at his hands, but for the most part it was no big deal and when he was sick of them we took the polish off. No one made an issue out of it. I think it would have been a bigger deal if we had refused him the polish in the first place. Love your post. 🙂

    • Thanks, Rita! And sorry for my delayed response. Somehow I didn’t know I had comments waiting. There is an article out in the NY Times, from yesterday, I think about so-called “pink boys” and gender fluidity. It takes such a serious tone. My husband and I discussed it because the nail polish appeared to be no big deal in the long run, but next week at school is “Pirate/Princess” Day and, naturally, our son wants to go as a pirate princess. Not one, not the other, but both. He has a ton of pirate gear and a tutu, so why not? After reading the article I became a little concerned that it was something more than just playing around, but as my husband reminded me, girls’ stuff is fun and flashy. Who wouldn’t want to wear sparkly nail polish and frilly tutus if they could? So, we’ll see how the pirate princess goes over, but I am committed to letting him explore his likes and dislikes, even if it means I have a knot in my stomach about it. That’s my cultural conditioning and maybe these kids will love it. Who knows?

  5. Have been away a couple of weeks so slowly catching up with blogland.

    I loved this post as I really have to consciously suppress the naturally cautious/conservative in me that opens my mouth to tell my kids that maybe they ought not to do whatever it is they’re about to do because boys/girls (whichever of my kids it happens to be) don’t do that. They get enough of that from my parents/their own peers (even for my son at the tender age of 5), so it feels so good to just let them ‘be’/do whatever feels good to them in the moment and not to bend them to be one way or another. I hope the pirate princess went fabulously.

    • Thanks, Bobbie! He decided to go only as a princess and was immediately told by peers of both genders that boys can’t be princesses. He was pretty mopey about it for a week or so, but seems to be perking back up. I bought him the book My Princess Boy, but it hasn’t arrived yet. I am hoping he’ll want to share it at school. 🙂

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