Why I won’t paint my son’s toenails (or let him wear a dress in public)

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Lenci boy and girl

My kids have always wanted to take part in the things I do. From toddlerhood they wanted to help crack the eggs, apply their own sunscreen, and climb into the narrow space between my body and my cello whenever I took it out to play. “Me too, Mommy,” they have said, “I want to do it also.”

Each of them has also wanted me to paint their toenails. Every time I pull out my selection of miniature rainbowed pots, my kids huddle around to watch. From time to time, I paint my daughter’s nails, but my eldest son was fairly young when my husband asked if we could please not paint the boys’ nails. Even in culturally-masculine blue tones. My then-one-year-old had just poured half the bottle of blue paint all over our bed, which made it all the easier to agree.

So, the first reason I don’t paint my boys’ toes is out of respect for their Dad.

But there’s another reason, which has become increasingly significant as the years have gone by. That second reason is this: we don’t want the unhelpful and unhealthy constant commentary that comes with things like having boys wearing nail polish or other such “counter-stereotyped” choices.

This became incredibly clear to me two years ago, one spring morning when my youngest son and I went out to run errands. In the way of many younger-brothers-of-older-girls, our son spent a lot of time being “dressed up” by his older sister. At home, under the creative direction of his Adored Older Sister, he wore fairy wings, princess dresses, feathered boas and sparkly crowns… and loved it. (And yes, we are okay with that. Just like we are okay with our daughter dressing up as a pirate and a ninja and a bear. And with all our kids playing with LEGO. And with all our kids playing Avengers. Or enacting Frozen. Or wielding swords. I am ALL FOR kids playing with whatever toys they like according to their interest, not their gender.)

On that particular morning our youngest was wearing a princess dress and loving it. It was a Cinderella dress: “a BLUE dress, Mommy, just like my eyes!” he pointed out. Since we generally don’t leave the house in costume on Days-That-Are-Not-Halloween, I asked him to take it off before we went out, but he was having none of it… so my blue-bell prince and I hit the town to run our errands. Friends, this is no exaggeration: I have never had so much attention from people IN MY LIFE as the day I took a boy out wearing a dress. Every single adult we passed that morning—from the fellow Christian parents are pre-school drop-off, to the complete strangers in our very liberal city—commented on his dress. Not one of them said something mean, but everyone said SOMETHING: each one of them variations of “oh, look at your dress!” and “today is a fun day for dress up!”

Each of the comments was benign and banal, but by the twentieth, and thirtieth and fortieth comment, the message to my son was loud and clear: LOOK HOW MUCH ATTENTION YOU WILL GET IF YOU DRESS DIFFERENTLY! EVERYONE WILL SEE YOU. EVERYONE WILL NOTICE! And on that day, I realized that I wouldn’t let my sons go out in “girl” dress-up again: not because I’m afraid of them being shamed or confused about being boys… but because I couldn’t help feeling that there was damage being done by how much attention was focused on something that should have just been child’s play.

I know that there is such a thing as gender dysphoria, and my heart goes out to boys and girls struggling with their sense of sexual identity. I don’t have neat answers for how to parent in those situations. But this I do know: for a kid who might be craving adult attention and affirmation, one sure way to get it is to dress “opposite” at a young age.

I believe that what adults say, and focus on, in talking with children does much to script the way kids view themselves when they are older. I want my daughter to know that her body is more than beautiful: it’s strong, and useful, and hers – and so I work hard to focus my words in that direction. And I want my boys to feel free to show interest in all sorts of things – in sports and LEGO and science and in dress-up – without every single passer-by commenting (and thus reinforcing) the message that dressing-like-a-girl (or painting your nails) is the Most Important Thing To Say About You.

And so, we keep our boys’ nails color-free, and we keep the princess dresses at home. Because I want the people we meet to talk about school, and play, and books, and the smile on their faces… and not what they wear. There are more important things to say to kids than “look at what you’re wearing!” Let’s say those things instead.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment!

Photo credit: Museum of Childhood, London – Lenci Boy and Girl/Suzanne Gerber (Flickr Creative Commons)

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19 thoughts on “Why I won’t paint my son’s toenails (or let him wear a dress in public)”

  1. That makes a lot of sense. Although I have to say, when I acquiesced to my youngest son request that I paint his toenails blue last summer (because I didn’t want to tell him that it was for girls), I was surprised to notice how many of the other rough-and-tumble boys he was playing with had their toenails painted as well, black and orange and blue. I don’t think there were more than one or two comments during the weeks the polish stayed on, so it may be A Thing. But if it is A Thing that draws undue attention or makes people uncomfortable, yes, better to steer clear.

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      I wonder if my hubby would change his mind if, in the years to come, all the boys in the sports league had orange and black nails too?

  2. A few things came to mind as I read.

    My mother, who has worked with children at church for years, told me that she tries to NEVER comment on what a child is wearing. Not even, “Oh my what a pretty dress!” She wants the attention to be on the child, not on her or his appearance. (How much of this is because of my college battle with an eating disorder, I can’t say; I think it did influence her when she saw me wrestling with my own appearance and became acutely aware of how much importance is placed on appearance in our society.)

    My second thought was about how dressing differently draws attention to ourselves. I heard a heart-breaking story of a teen girl who dressed “differently” (weirdly, some might say); I think her taste in fashion was just different from what we’d consider “normal”. She was constantly bullied for this, at youth group and at the Christian high school she attended. I’ve known people like this, and usually, they have an indifferent attitude toward those who ridicule them. “Who cares what you think?” seems to be their mantra.

    Unfortunately for this girl, she was extremely sensitive and cared about being rejected and ridiculed. No one–not even at church–accepted her. My mom tried to talk to one of the adult leaders about this, and the leader responded, “Well, if she’d just stop dressing so weird . . .” (That was the same response her parents had had when they complained about their daughter being bullied at the school.) Eventually she joined a cult because they were the one group that accepted her as she was, strange clothing choices and all. Tragic.

    People do judge on appearances, and anything that looks out of the ordinary draws attention. It’s sad that we can’t forget that.

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      I’m slowly learning your mom’s wisdom, Laura. I wish there were more like her, because there are so many like the tragic young girl you describe. I’m so sorry to hear that.

  3. I really do enjoy seeing my little grand daughters and grand sons playing with dolls in their playroom at my house. We don’t make a big thing of it. So many of their toys are more gender specific, and boys learn to be caring and nurturing when they role play mommies and daddies. Nail polish and dresses…..definitely not!

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      One of my favorite things is to see my boys tenderly care for little people and things, and I love that they say “like you mom” and also that they are being “like daddy” in this 🙂

  4. I always love your wisdom and perspective, Bronwyn. Thank you for this post. It certainly gives me lots to think about in how and when I comment on my own children’s attire, clothing, hair/makeup choices, etc.

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      Thank you friend 🙂 and yay for how the code and crumbs podcast is taking off!!

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      Thanks friend. With you in this. I wish we moms were talking more about this and brainstorming real, workable things we could say o kids INSTEAD of being trapped in the “you’re so cute” stock replies.

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      Clear varnish is a smart option. Also, if there were clear princess dresses, that would help with the second issue.

  5. I’m not sure if the comments were specifically about him dressing like a girl or just dressing up! Because whenever my son is out in costume, we get all the attention too! People love to comment on that kind of thing, it’s sweet to see. If you took him out dressed as an astronaut, would he get the same attention? I’m not sure if it’s the cross-gender thing or just the cuteness thing!

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      A good point. My daughter got ate room when she wore dresses and my sons on costume… But the SCALE of commentary was what dazzled me with the boy plus dress combo. Truly, it was notable.

  6. I have no kids, so take this comment for what it’s worth, but I think the “right” decision in these situations completely depends on the circumstances. For your son, it does seem like attention is the issue. For other kids, it could be something else. I don’t think there’s any one way to handle this, but there are plenty of ways to handle it badly. It doesn’t sound like you did at all 🙂

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      Thanks Beth. I think you’re so right that parenting is a far more nuanced and customized-to-your-kid and customized-to-your-context thing than we realize.

  7. My five year old girl often wants to be a boy. She is big and strong for her age and can hold her own with anyone on the play ground. She is generally wearing her brothers hand me downs (t shirts and shorts) and when her hair is not braided, so is often mistaken for a boy. No one bats an eye lid. Her teachers are very quick to tell us it is all fine and good for her. I agree with them. So it is a little sad to me, that such things can’t work the other way around. But I agree with you, they can’t! Societal norms are strange and inconsistent things!

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      Sigh. Culture is crazy. In some ways it’s easier for girls to wear “boy” stuff as toddlers… But then there’s also all that horrible focus on girls’ bodies and clothes when they get a little older. We have our work cut out for us to speak to them about the dignity and beauty and usefulness of their bodies before the “you are what you look like” pressure crushes them.

  8. I have a similar problem with my daughter wearing dresses in public. She gets stopped over and over and told how pretty her dress is. Now, she intentionally asks to wear her dresses when we go out “So that people will say how pretty they are and like me” she says. She’s 3! I know adults are just trying to be nice and friendly, but my instruction on how being kind and wise is more important than how she looks falls pretty flat when she can get such instant gratification and attention from people telling her she’s pretty. I know it takes a little effort, but I do think we adults can be more intentional about the comments we make to kids we are interacting with and finding more meaningful ways to affirm them than by commenting in their appearance.

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Bronwyn Lea

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Photo credit: Christa Norman, Mel Draper Photography, and Jonathan Summer