Courtesy of Sarah Bunton
I Sent My Son To School With Painted Nails & This Is What Happened

by Sarah Bunton

Thankfully it seems like the general attitude towards letting children express themselves has become more accepting and relaxed. Ever since I've become a mother, the importance of gender equality has only grown for me because I want my son to grow up in a world where the way he presents himself won't warrant bullying. Even though Gwen Stefani's son wears nail polish, just because it's accepted in Hollywood doesn't mean it will be in my neighborhood. Yet I'm still optimistic.

With everything from Target taking down the gender signs on their toy aisles to Taylor Swift's 2015 VMA acceptance speech embracing boys playing princess and girls pretending to be soldiers, I think I have a solid foundation for my hopes. But daydreaming about an accepting future is a far cry from testing it out in the real world. My son has always been fascinated by color, whether it's drawing, finger painting, or playing in my makeup, he just loves anything bright and fun. He's been after me to let him wear nail polish since he ever saw me paint my nails such bold colors. So after some quick research, I found a kid-safe brand and got ready to enter the world of painted nails.

The Experiment

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My husband and I both deeply believe in the necessity for equality regardless of race, gender, orientation, and anything else. So if our son comes to us one day and says that he's gay or identifies as transgender, we'll embrace him and love him just as completely as we do now. The only fear my partner and I have, however, is how the world might treat him if he doesn't fit into the status quo. No parent wants their child to be bullied for being "different," but there are some things we know we just can't control.

Right now, my son is just a little kid who loves color and nail polish means nothing more than tons fun colors to him. Every time I paint my own nails, he's curious why he can't do the same. So I wondered how his classmates, teachers, or even his classmates' parents might respond when they saw my son with blue nails. What did it matter, really, if my little boy was sporting a bright hue of blue? I wanted to try this out for a whole week to get a sense for how people reacted, and if my son ever became uncomfortable, I'd cut the experiment short.

Just Like Finger Painting?

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I incorrectly assumed that since my son had been so eager to try out nail polish on his own that he'd be cooperative during the application process. I was wrong. Thinking that it'd be helpful if I put things into terms he might understand, I told him that mommy was going to put some color on his nails like he wanted and that it was kind of like finger painting. A poor choice of words on my part, because he equated finger painting with getting to flail his hands with reckless abandon. Surprisingly, though, he was fascinated enough by the shiny blue hue that he sat fairly still. We did have to do it in shifts, however, to avoid complete meltdowns (and getting blue marks on everything).

Another surprise was how subdued my son's classmates' and teacher's reactions were. The kids themselves hardly paid any mind to what was on my son's fingers and were much more interested in engaging in activities. All the teacher said was, "Oh, look! You have blue [nails]! Cool!" And that was that. No major gender revolution or signs of moral outrage. It's not that I expected a reaction from them, but it was still a little surprising to realize that no one really cared about his nails (and if they did, they clearly didn't make it known).

Colors, Colors, Everywhere!

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My son, like many kids his age, is easily entranced by anything bright. He loves chalk, markers, crayons, my makeup, food coloring, and nail polish. In my mind, there's no concept of gendering colors, nonetheless items or activities, in my son's thought process. He's 2 years old. I think it's actually the adults who like to read into actions or preferences and ascribe meaning to them, and not the other way around.

So as the experiment continued, my son would occasionally stare at his nails or make a comment about the color, but he really didn't seem to be all that distracted by the polish. If anything, it just made him want to do more activities that involved colors. One of the things I like to do with him is to put red, blue, and yellow food coloring in water-filled containers and let him experiment with mixing them. He really loved to try over and over again to get the blue from his nail polish to combine with the colored water. And despite the fact it never worked, it was still fun for me to watch.

I have no clue how often, if ever, my son will ask to wear nail polish again, but I dread the day he realizes that being different is seen as a negative thing by some people.

What Are "Boy" Things?

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Something I hadn't really even considered was the opportunity for dialogue between my husband and me about issues we might not have otherwise had reason to discuss. Being that my husband is atheist and I'm Christian, I was somewhat caught off guard when it was my partner who seemed to feel concerned about the implications this experiment might have. In fact, it sparked an entire conversation on what is considered a "boy" thing or a "girl" thing.

The question that essentially kicked off this discussion was my husband asking me if I thought we were conditioning our son by letting him do "girl" things like dancing or playing with makeup. I personally feel that there is no such thing as a "boy" or "girl" activity. This isn't to say that I'm forcing my son to wear pink or that my husband is anti-ballet, but where I focus on how things make my son feel (like getting to wear nail polish), my husband wants focuses on the potential consequences he could experience (like being bullied).

Taking Cues From Toddlers

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Letting my son go to school with painted finger nails didn't invite any negative treatment from his fellow classmates. If anything, I heard through the grapevine that the other toddlers were just as excited about color as my son was. However, the news that other kids loved his nails made my heart break a little when it probably should have been bursting with joy.

Yes, I was thrilled my son's friends were sweet and accepting. Yet my mind immediately flashed forward to a time when that may not be the case. I have no clue how often, if ever, my son will ask to wear nail polish again, but I dread the day he realizes that being different is seen as a negative thing by some people. But for now, I'm relishing in this blissful ignorance among both my son and his peers.

Mixing It Up

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Partially because the majority of polish was chipped off from the everyday activity of a toddler and partially because my son appeared bored with the remaining color on his nails, we switched things up a bit and did his toes. I had actually painted his toenails prior to this, but my son enjoyed the change in scenery, so to speak, anyways.

There's nothing quite like the look of sheer glee that spreads across his face when I tell him his toes are dry and he can finally touch the shiny polish. As a parent, I live for moments like that where you can actually provide your child with something so small yet so meaningful and exciting to them. I only hope that my husband and I can continue to let him have those uninhibited experiences without our son ever feeling ashamed or embarrassed of whatever makes him happy.

What Did I Learn?

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In a nutshell, I came away from this experiment with the understanding that adults (teachers, parents, and strangers) are the ones who are most prone to judgment and are also the ones who are responsible for preventing that trait from being taught to the next generation.

It might seem silly for me to read so much into something as seemingly insignificant as nail polish, but it felt like a dry run for what my son may one day encounter. I was relieved no one said anything to me at all about Max's painted fingers and toes, but I'd be lying if I didn't at least acknowledge that I know this won't always be the case. As some point, Max will learn that there are things boys "should" do and things they "shouldn't," and while my partner and I are both tasked with tearing down those gender stereotypes, I at least feel good knowing that, for now, the kids in his class think painting your nails, no matter if you're a boy or a girl, is exciting.