A ridiculous media storm has erupted over the innocent act of painting a child’s toenails. All young children, boys and girls alike, want their nails colored. It looks pretty. Congratulations to J. Crew for illustrating normal childhood.
The early years of childhood are an enchanted time of imagination. The child’s job is to play, to imitate, to pretend to be everyone. The child’s job is not to fit into rigid gender expectations. That comes later. That comes when the hormones of puberty kick in. Before that, the sexual identity of a child is fluid.
I have four adult children, two females and two males, and as they grew up they exhibited this fluid, undefined sexual identity. Their play was influenced more by their order in the family than by their gender.
As a child, my oldest, Lally, dressed her two younger brothers in girl clothes and pretended that they were her sisters. I have one photograph of my son, Bram, around four, dressed in a skirt, boots, shawl and wearing a scarf on his head. Nonetheless, he grew up to be a hearty male. But, even if he hadn’t it wouldn’t have been a tragedy and it wouldn’t have been because I painted his toenails when he was a child.
My favorite photo of this “genre,” is the one of my son, Finnie, also about four at the time, standing at the top of a stairway. He has on a football helmet, is holding a football in one of his hands and other than that is dressed only in panty hose. He now has a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
My youngest daughter, Nora, with two older brothers, grew up playing GI Joes, cars and mostly “boy” games. This helped her to get along exceptionally well with boys but did not make her into a lesbian.
What difference would it make if she were a lesbian? Would I love her less? No. Would I have failed as a parent? No. Could I have “made it happen?’ No. The first thing wrong with this whole conversation about the innocent pink toenails is that it’s not a tragedy if a child grows up to be homosexual. Homosexuals are a normal part of life.
Only those with insecure sexual identity themselves would assume that we have to teach our children their sexual orientations. Sexual orientation is a complex subject but it is not something that we learn; it is something that we have.
We may be confused as parents when our children experiment with different sexual identities in play but we can trust our children’s play. It’s just that. It’s make believe. You will observe that your children will undergo a transformation at puberty. You will see them become men and women then, but not before. Before then they are only children.
We try to pin down our child’s sexual identity too early. Why do we dress girl babies in pink and boy babies in blue? That is so stereotypical, so 1984. I realize that people want to signal the sex of their babies so that others won’t wrongly identify them, but this encourages conformity. We don’t have to set boundaries for our children regarding their sexuality; they will do it themselves. It is inherent; it will unfold.
This rigidity regarding the sexual identity of children is even more exaggerated with boys than with girls. It is acceptable for girls to be “tomboys,” wear boy clothes and engage in sports, all without censure. But boys can barely step out of the roles expected of them. Their clothing is limited to pants only and they are ridiculed for interest in areas traditionally dominated by women, such as decorating, dance and cooking. We have to be careful as parents that we do not corral our children into stereotypical gender roles.
We’ve published a couple of great articles about gender-bending boys. One, “The Boy in the Blue Tutu” is about a three-and-a-half year old boy who just wants to wear dresses. The article was first published in the March/April 1999 issue of Mothering Magazine and received the 2000 Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) Media Award for Outstanding Magazine Column. And, we published Handsome in Pink in our July/August 2010 issue and have an audio version online.
It is the issue of defamation that is at the heart of this furor. First is the defamation of a child’s innocent experience. Those who read unnatural motives into the innocent play of children would do well to examine their own sexual security. To attempt to control children’s play because of adult’s prurient intentions is exploitive and abusive.
It is a further defamation to deny a person’s authentic experience, either as an innocent child or as a teenager and young adult. For the teenager or young adult who realizes that he or she is homosexual, the censure of the society at large can be overwhelming. In fact, a 1998 study claimed that homosexual or bisexual junior high and senior high school boys are seven times more likely than heterosexual boys of the same age to report suicide attempts.
Demonizing the innocent behavior of the pink toenails is a way to bully others into conformity and is inherently homophobic. A homophobic society doesn’t eliminate homosexual behavior, it only forces it underground and its intolerance increases suffering. Specifically, it increases the chances that teens will take their own lives. Let us be compassionate to these teens.
And, let us treat children as children. It isn’t correct to interpret the behavior of psychologically healthy children through the lens of neuroses. It is correct to let children be, to trust in their inherent innocence.