A couple of weeks ago, my eight-year-old son asked if he could come with me to the nail salon. He wanted to get his nails done. I was delighted to have the company, since I usually go alone. I also sensed this was one of those seemingly small but potentially big parenting moments. There were emotional and psychological risks involved in our adventure, and many of them would likely take place outside of my circle of influence. What would my son’s friends say to him at school when he reached across a table for a glue-stick? How would his teachers react when he raised his hand to answer a question? When we returned from our adventure, would my husband’s face betray anxiety? If he conveyed uneasiness or disapproval, would our son notice?
My son and I sat next to each other near a string of orchids while our nail technicians buffed and filed. They were less rigorous with my son, who elected to keep his cuticles. He sat patiently in his camouflage pants and favorite Minecraft t-shirt, responding politely to his nail technician’s prompts. He’d selected seven different polishes in a range of colors.
He was finished before I was. He held his up hands for all of us to admire.
“Beautiful,” I said.
“Like a rainbow,” his technician agreed.
My son plays football, has close friends of both genders, and litigates passionately about the social cache of the top trending video games. Occasionally, when he tells me about a conflict with a friend, tears stream down his face. He shares his feelings with ease. Once, in a tender moment, he reassured his own father that all of us cry, and that it’s a good thing to do. He inhales Mike Lupica novels and loves Rick Riordan. We read the “Keeper of the Lost Cities” books together before bedtime. He likes the all-powerful girl protagonist and the sensitive and quirky boy characters who support her on her quests.
I used to think I’d never allow even a toy gun in our house, but over the years, I’ve come to have a broader view of play. Many of my most entrenched beliefs about anger and aggression and where it all begins and how it gets perpetuated have shifted. There are more grey areas than I ever imagined. Laser tag and nerf battles are fun, plain and simple. I could probably cite half a dozen articles highlighting the latest research on biological, wired-in gender differences to support my parenting choices, but research isn’t why I do what I do as a parent.
Supporting your son’s nature while marinating in pervasively destructive cultural influences is hard. When it comes to nature or nurture, I’m reminded of my eighth grade English class and a passage from the Odyssey about the whirlpool and the six-headed monster. Charybdys is the ”boiling surf, under high fiery winds, tossing wreckage of ships and men,” and Skylla ”takes, from every ship, one man for every gullet.” Nature and nurture are hard to navigate. Or maybe things were just easier when I could believe in all my theories. What I’ve learned is that theories need to connect me with my parenting North Star: my son’s heart.
Being curious about his experience helps more than proselytizing.
In labs, researchers control for many factors. But in the midst of a messy, ugly, real-life, trigger-happy, gender-prescribing wold, being able to identify healthy aggression, healthy competition, healthy self-centeredness, and even healthy single-mindedness isn’t easy. Their subtly toxic, socially reinforced counterparts look very similar. Telling the difference requires patience and rigor. As a mother, I miss the mark more often than I like to admit. Seeking to understand and support the strength and beauty of boyhood is humbling.
When we got home from the nail salon, my son ran into the kitchen, where my husband was holding the mail and removing his coat. “Look, dad,” he called out in his toughest voice, “I got my nails done!” Without missing a beat, my husband–a government ID still dangling from his neck–smiled broadly and said, “Wow! They look great!” Our son’s beaming face beamed even brighter. Shortly thereafter, I heard them laughing and trash-talking as they tumbled around on the living room floor in a winner-takes-all wrestling match.
The next day, though, on the ride home from school, my son asked me a question that threw me. “Why do kids call you gay if you’re a boy and you get your nails done?”
Skylla and Charybdis: I took a long, deep breath.
“Well, I have my boring adult theories about it,” I said. “But I’d rather know what you think.”
My son shrugged. “Maybe because a lot of people think boys should only do certain boyish things and the same with girls.”
I nodded. “It takes courage to do what you like and go against what’s expected,” I said.
“Yup,” he agreed, looking proudly at his nails. “I told them there’s nothing wrong with being gay, and my grandmothers are. Besides, it means a lot of things, and one of them is happy.”