Accepting others for who they are without judgement is at the core of what this blog is all about. It is also, I believe, the foundation on which we practice kindness with our kids. Accepting others is about accepting differences, whatever those may be including race, ethnicity, hair color, style, clothes, accents, birth origin, ability, and the list goes on.
“The greatest gift that you can give to others is the gift of unconditional love and acceptance.” - Brian Tracey
There are 7 billion people in this world each with unique DNA and, as a result, unique in who they are and the purpose they serve on this planet. I think conceptually we get this. But, it’s in the every day use and practice of kindness where we truly learn about our commitment to the concept of acceptance.
As parents, we got our chance when my 5 year old son asked to paint his fingernails.
This request comes on the heels of a very rare occurrence in our household - I got a pedicure! My purple toenails, in honor of my youngest son’s favorite color, sparked a conversation in our household about why I do this (my response: during the summer I wear sandals and I like the way it makes my feet look) and why I don’t do it on my fingernails (my response: because I don’t like the constant maintenance required for fingernails).
It also comes after we had begun a wonderful book called Morris Micklewhite and The Tangerine Dress By Christine Baldacchino, which is all about a young boy who loves to wear a tangerine dress and what happens to him at school as a result. This book led to some really lovely conversations with my kids about acceptance. We discussed accepting whatever decisions they make about how they live their lives - as long as it’s not hurting someone, it’s okay. We discussed how we treat other people and our role in helping others that might be getting teased. And, we also discussed what it must have felt like to be Morris and why he was brave in living his happiest life.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that gender conversations in our household are tricky.
We are an all-male household plus me. And, I definitely do not qualify as your “stereotypical girl.” I don’t enjoy shopping. I have absolutely have zero fashion sense. I still wear the same make-up I received as part of my wedding makeover ten years ago! And, I don’t cook and hate cleaning. Yep, that’s me.
As a result, my 3 boys don’t have much to compare too when it comes to your usual girl (or mom!) or the traditional definition of femininity. When it comes to fashion, my middle son has gravitated toward flashier choices. He’s the one to pick up headbands, sequined shirts, and anything with standout colors. On more than one occasion, he has encouraged me to buy the colorful shirt rather than the black or navy blue ones, my go-tos. His favorite color, of the moment anyway, is hot pink - you don’t get more classic in gender norms than that.
In our home, we want to create an environment where our boys are free to explore who they are and want to be without following these strict, somewhat rigid norms of gender and identity. At the same time, I want them to be aware of what girls typically wear and what boys typically wear, especially since they aren’t really learning it from me.
The purist in me would ask “why does it matter?”
And, my response, perhaps to myself, is that I want him to be prepared. It matters only because the rest of the world operates around these norms even if we don’t and not everyone is raising their kids the same way that I am. If my son decides to wear nail polish on his finger nails, he should be aware of what might happen at school or at camp.
As a result of this desired balance, our communication with our son became extremely important and nuanced. I wanted him to walk away from our dialogue feeling fully supported in whatever he wants to do and loved no matter what. But, he needs to be aware and prepared for what might happen out in the world. And, I wanted this 5 year old of ours to GET that our desire for him to be prepared and aware was the definition of supporting him...not judging him. A delicate nuance for sure.
As I look back now, there are several things that have led to a successful experience. Before the infamous pedicure that kickstarted this whole thing, we had already had a number of conversations about gender. We have read a ton of books about accepting differences (see below for an incredible list); they are told everyday they are loved unconditionally; and, we have had numerous conversations about gender as a close family member is a transgender woman.
Still, there were five surprising discoveries for me once I painted his fingernails and he began to show all of our family.
The mix of feelings that came up for all of us was unexpectedly complicated. We had to really parse out the difference between judgment, fear, acceptance and protection. What I originally perceived to be judgement by some people in our family was actually fear. Fear of how the rest of the gendered normed world would “hurt” our family member and a strong desire by everyone to protect our little guy.
My oldest son wanted to protect him. Perhaps the most concerned person in our family was my oldest son. He was really worried that people would tease his little brother. While this strike of protectiveness for his little bro is not entirely surprising, it still warms my heart. It also provided a good opportunity to talk about what he would do and say if someone did tease his brother - (Do stand up for him, Don’t use your hands).
A surprising comment from my oldest son was that he wanted to make sure Daddy knew about the painted fingernails before he got home. It was an interesting moment where it became clear that this 7 year old of mine had already significantly influenced by gender norms AND as a kid who wants everyone to be happy, he wanted to make sure his Dad was okay with this new development. (Hint: he was)
Important communication between my husband and I to make sure we were aligned was eye-opening. I didn’t check in with my husband prior to painting the fingernails, but I did want to make sure we were communicating the right messages. We took the opportunity that evening to make sure we were on the same page and it was through this conversation that the complex mix of feelings we were all dealing with became more clear.
My son was ready. He is still painting his fingernails (only once a week, because the maintenance drives me nuts!) and it makes him happy to do it. He felt ready at camp when kids asked him why he is doing it and feels good about himself for doing what makes him feel like himself.
In a way, my pedicure opened the door for my son to further explore what he likes and dislikes, and how he identifies. It also opened the door for some really important conversations about acceptance for everyone in our family.
In truth, we all grew a bit with this one.
It’s amazing how the courage of a little five year old can inspire, change, and grow everyone around him. I would love to hear how you all have responded to your own kids when they wanted to do something that pushed the usual gendered norms?
Want to see what books I read with my kids about accepting the differences of others? There are so many good ones. Hop over to a related post on these books.