Last fall, I had the privilege of being the maid of honor at my best friend’s wedding. My son, four at the time, was the ring bearer.
He was oozing with excitement for weeks before and was proud to be able to carry “the pillow” down the aisle.
When I started getting ready on the morning of the big day, he watched me putting on nail polish.
“Mommy,” he asked. “What is that stuff?”
“It’s nail polish,” I answered. “I want my nails to look pretty for the wedding.”
“I want to look pretty too! Mommy, can I have some of that stuff too?”
“Of course,” I responded.
I spent the next ten minutes covering his little fingernails in a soft pink polish. When I was done, he was bursting with excitement.
“Grandma!” He yelled, running to find her. “Look at my pretty nails. Mommy did them.” My mom looked at his overjoyed little face and responded appropriately, sharing his excitement with him.
But when he ran away to show Grandpa, she pulled me aside, “How is his dad going to react to his nails being painted pink?”
I shrugged. “Is his son happy?”
My mom looked at her grandchild bouncing up and down and staring at his nails.
“Yes,” she responded.
“Well then, he will be happy too.”
In the excitement of the day, I didn’t think any more of this exchange. My son was happy; he felt great with his new nails and that was the end of it.
A few days later, on Monday afternoon when he came home from school, I could tell something was wrong.
“What’s up, buddy?” I asked him.
He looked up at me with his sweet, innocent eyes that were now tinged with hurt and asked, “Mommy, is nail polish only for girls?”
“No. Why do you think that?”
“A few girls at school said I couldn’t wear nail polish because I’m a boy.”
Anger instantly welled up inside me. Picture the character Anger from Inside Out — that was me.
I knew the girls weren’t to blame. They were in kindergarten; they weren’t born thinking some things were only for girls while others were for boys. It was something they had been taught. And taught repeatedly for it to come out in such a manner in a four-year-old.
I was so angry with those girls’ parents for teaching this to them at all, and especially at such a young age. How dare they impose their prejudices on my child?
It took a lot of self-control to keep my anger hidden from my child. I didn’t want him to realize there was anything beyond this than just a silly comment. I didn’t want him to ask what else was just for boys or just for girls. I wanted him to retain the innocence of youth.
I wanted him to be free to explore whatever his heart decided without societal norms placed on him.
“Anyone can wear nail polish,” I responded to him as calmly as I could.
“Then why would they say that?”
“Maybe they’ve never seen a man wearing nail polish before.” Then this got me thinking. Many of our male friends wear nail polish. I pointed this out to our son and he seemed happier.
The hurt was gone from his eyes, but his excitement was gone. It had been tainted.
He didn’t have any follow-up questions about things that were supposed to be just for girls or things that were supposed to be just for boys, but he never again asked to wear nail polish.
This past weekend, my husband and I threw a large party to celebrate our 10th anniversary.
As I was getting my son ready for bed, out of the blue he asked, “Mommy, remember that stuff you put on your nails before?”
“Yes,” I responded slowly, not sure what was going to follow.
“I want to wear some tomorrow for the party.”
It had been over a year since the first event, but my heart soared. It may have taken a long time, but his excitement was back.
I gave him a great big smile and a hug and told him I thought that was a wonderful idea.
At the party, he was sporting blue, pink, and peach nail polish and couldn’t have been happier. Knowing he was in a safe place, surrounded by our wonderful friends and family, I made a point of getting him to show everyone his nail polish.
The men also showed off their nail polish to him and the look of happiness on my son’s face was magic. I told a few of them privately about the experience he had the past year, and they made a point of telling him stories about boys and men they knew who also wore nail polish.
I won’t be able to protect my son from gender-based stereotypes, but I’m glad we have so many amazing people in our lives who were able to show him the importance of being himself.
He now knows that even if some girls at school don’t agree with his choices, his parents and all of his parents’ friends think he’s a pretty cool dude.
I hope he has learned he can express himself in any way he wants, and that his mom and dad are always on board with how he wants to express himself. That there are other people (a whole bunch) that agree.
He may be too young to realize the importance of finding “your people” but I hope this experience stays in his mind for the years to come.
Then when some child, undoubtedly, tells him that the ballet he loves doing is “only for girls” he can tell them to stuff it.
I hope he has gained a measure of confidence to do what makes him happy.
Kim Fedyk is a writer, slopitch fanatic, and mom. She has published two fantasy novels and six children’s picture books as well as being a frequent contributor to her blog on medium.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.