Yesterday, as I was touching up my nail polish, my 3-year-old son came over to watch. He liked the color I was using, and asked me to paint his nails too. I didn’t even think twice about it, because as far as I’m concerned, nail polish is just a fun little “extra” and wanting to see a nice color on your fingers isn’t a gender-specific thing. I also know that wanting to emulate the adults around them is a very developmentally appropriate practice for young children.
I shared a sweet picture of my boy with his bright blue nails with my family and friends and got lots of “likes,” as well as a few other parents commenting with similar experiences. My sister-in-law, however, mentioned that my brother gets very angry with her if she paints my 2-year-old nephew’s nails.
I was a bit surprised by this, because I’ve always thought of my brother as a pretty progressive guy, so I asked. He isn’t on Facebook, so I texted him the same photo of my son’s nails, and he responded with concern that allowing my son to participate in traditionally feminine activities might confuse him later in life. We had a long conversation in which we shared our very different views on gender norms in society and the role they should or should not play in parenting.
My brother believes that gender roles in society are what they are, regardless of whether we think they should be that way. I disagree; I recognize that societal norms are extremely subjective and constantly evolving over time. They are also different depending on which culture around the world a person belongs to. My thought is that there is no reason to enforce current trends on a child who doesn’t understand them, because by the time he grows up they could very well have changed entirely. Less than 100 years ago, little boys and little girls alike were clothed in dresses, and less than 100 years from now that could very well become commonplace again. I bring this up to show the malleability of fashion and gender expectations. They are far from set in stone and I simply can not justify forcing meaningless rules on my children based on the presence or lack of a Y chromosome.
We discussed Caitlin Jenner (who my brother still refers to as Bruce) and her reflection on her childhood as a boy whose sisters would dress him in their clothes for fun. Caitlin claims that this was the beginning of her confusion, and my brother worries that by allowing my son to partake in activities like nail painting that are “for girls,” I risk confusing him later on. Now, I neither know Caitlin Jenner personally nor am qualified to give an educated opinion on the matter, but I suspect that the confusion would have started at some point regardless and these dress up sessions were simply a catalyst.
I pointed out that even today, there are heteronormative men who choose to wear nail polish, but even this was not enough to change my brother’s mind. He believes that there is a significant difference between a grown man making a conscious choice to step outside gender expectations versus a child who doesn’t know any better.
As an early childhood educator, I must voice my professional belief that children emulate the adults around them with little regard to what is appropriate for their gender. As they grow, they start to realize on their own that some activities don’t “fit” them, and will naturally gravitate to those that do. In the education community, it is widely understood that using certain colors or playing certain games has absolutely no effect on a child’s eventual sexual orientation or gender identity.
In all honesty, I do worry about my son being confused later in life, but not about his gender. I worry that he will be confused by the negative reactions he might receive from others for simply doing or wearing something he enjoys. Children are who they are, and limiting their options does nothing but make them unhappy. I still automatically lean towards traditionally boy things for my son and girl things for my daughter, but I will never tell either or my children that they cannot do or have something only because it is intended for the opposite gender (with obvious exceptions that actually pertain to their anatomy).
What’s especially interesting to me is that there has been such a push in recent years to let little girls know that they can do anything boys can do, yet there is still such a stigma against boys who want to do things that traditionally have been considered “for girls.” My father desperately wanted me to play sports growing up (was not my “thing”), but expressed concern that I bought his grandson a baby doll. Why?
I implore parents and caregivers to step back and consider whether their gender-specific clothes, toys, activities, and personality traits really should be isolated to a particular half of the population. Progress happens when we question our norms and start challenging the ones that don’t benefit us as a society, so get to questioning.