What Happened When I Painted My Son’s Fingernails

My oldest son Dax is just a few weeks shy of turning five, which means I’ve been actively parenting him for half of a decade already. (I very much enjoy phrasing it that way when chatting with my childless peers as it makes me sound way more experienced than I actually am.) But last Saturday afternoon, just when I thought that Dax couldn’t possibly surprise me anymore, he went ahead and did it.

“Mama, can you do that to me, too?”

My eyes widened and shot up to greet his gaze. Then they shot back down to their previous task. I was painting my nails.

“You want your nails painted, Dax?” I just wanted to confirm with him what he was asking.

“Yes! I want my nails painted, too!” Then he waited a beat, and his furrowed brow and contemplating gaze told me he was truly considering his request. It was at this point I thought that, surely, he was about to back down, realizing that gender norms in this society dictate that he is, as a boy, not supposed to walk around with painted nails.

“Are you sure?” I nudged him out of his pondering.

“Oh, yes,” he replied without hesitation. “But, do you have red nail polish? Red is my absolute favorite color!”

I had to make a decision. I could either be the one to inform my precious son that “blah blah blah boys aren’t supposed to wear nail polish blah blah blah” OR I could embrace my progressiveness full stop and let my son have painted nails because, honestly, who gives a crap?

I chose the latter, and got up to fetch my red nail polish from my bathroom.

Dax sat ever so still while I polished each of his ten, stubby, teeny, tiny fingernails with as much precision as I could muster. And then, after I was finished polishing, he carefully found a comfortable seat on the couch, his hands open and fingers spread wide, so he could watch a movie while he waited for his nails to dry. His commitment to the entire process was simultaneously astounding and adorable.

I picked up my phone to text the children’s ministry director at our church.

“Hey Liz, just wanted to give you a heads up that Dax is coming to church tomorrow with his nails painted. Can you have his back in case any kids or parents make any negative comments?”

“Of course! No problem!” she responded.

I felt a little conflicted sending that text, to be honest. Here I was, doing my best to normalize Dax’s desire to both be a boy and also have painted nails, but I was also nervous. I didn’t want anyone to be cruel to my baby. The truth was that I had so little faith in the rest of the world. I want my kids to be accepted just the way they are, just the way I accept them, and I was terrified that he wouldn’t be.

But it turns out that I was wrong to be afraid. Much to my pleasant surprise, in the entire week that there was red polish on my son’s fingernails, neither he nor I received a single negative comment. Most people didn’t even notice his nail polish, but the ones who did simply pointed it out in a very matter-of-fact way. “Oh hey, your nails are painted red!” They’d say. “Yes, it’s my favorite color and it matches my Pokémon shirt!” he would reply confidently.

And that was that.

After about a week of having painted nails, Dax was apparently done. He asked me if I would remove the polish.

“Are you sure?” I asked cautiously. “Did someone tell you that you should take the nail polish off?” (Yes, I was projecting a little. So sue me.)

“Nope! No one told me to do anything! I just really like my normal nail color, I think.”

What a relief. Dax, of his own volition, decided that, while red nail polish is fun, he prefers his natural nail color. Of course, I wouldn’t have cared if he preferred his nails to remain painted all the days of his life. What I would have cared about is if he would have come to either of those conclusions – keeping or removing the nail polish – as a result of being shamed by someone else.

This whole situation was such an eye-opening experience for me. While it was a relatively minor thing, it was a true test of what is to come for my husband and me as Dax grows up and, inevitably, tries to find himself in this world. Nail polish didn’t bother us or, evidently, anyone else, but maybe he’ll try something that does bother us in the future. I want to know that, regardless of our gut feelings on something, we can approach it with a mindset of seeking to understand and being supportive of him above all else. While each of my children grow up and explore who they are, I want them to feel like the safest place to do that is right in their own home with their family. And regardless of what people out in society say to them, they will know that they are loved and cherished no matter what. Period.

That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?