It's unconventional. It's also awesome.
My sons can hear me unscrew a bottle of nail polish from across the house. All three of them, ages six, four and two, come at a run. They barge into the bathroom, sucking up all the breathing space with their energetic boyness. "Paint my nails!" they howl. "Do my toes, too!"
"When I'm done with my own," I say patiently. They hover with hulking presence despite their small sizes. My oldest goes first. He always picks the same color: gold, which he says is like dragon claws. He sits on the closed toilet. I sit on the edge of the tub and swipe polish across his tiny fingers.
The baby wants whatever his oldest brother has, but my middle son contemplates the nail polish cabinet. Sometimes he wants his favorite color, black. Once in awhile he picks pink. But mostly, he picks his favorite: blue sparkles.
My four-year-old ends up with blue-sparkled fingers and toes. He collects sparkly polish, in fact, and chooses it as a reward when he's done something particularly good. He's careful to let his nails dry before he touches anything. And if it chips, he's back, begging for a fix.
My son isn't a princess boy. I don't think he's gay, whatever gay would mean in a four-year-old, but I'm happy he likes to have his nails painted, and happier still that he chooses sparkles. It's unconventional. It's also awesome. Here's why my son wanting sparkly nail polish is a great thing.
1. He's asserting his self-identity.
My son isn't letting society tell him how he has to be. When he picks out sparkly polish, he makes his own way to be in the world. This strong self-identity will serve him well later in life, when peer pressure sets in and when the daily grind pressures him to conform. He'll always be the boy who wore sparkly polish to the playground, and who was completely his own person.
2. He's doing what he likes.
He likes to have his fingers and toe nails painted. He likes to have them painted with sparkles, because he likes sparkles. He's not letting an increasingly gendered child culture dictate his likes and dislikes. Sparkles make him happy. Not because they look like dragon claws, or because they're for princesses; he likes sparkles themselves.
3. He's exercising his bodily integrity.
His body is his own. He has the right to decide, within reason, what happens to it. He has decided that he wants his body adorned with sparkly nail polish. That decision puts him in control of his body.
This is an important lesson for small children to learn. No one has the right to do things to them without their consent. It's a building block to preventing rape and sexual abuse. In a small way, respecting his decision to have sparkly nails helps him develop a sense of bodily autonomy.
4. He's bucking gender norms.
This sets the stage for him to question all kinds of ideas, from what type of clothes to wear, to how to treat women, to what women are capable of. This nail polish is one more way we can show him to question outdated gender norms, no matter what society thinks of it.
5. He knows that adults aren't always right.
Older family members have expressed their discontent with his nail polish. We've had to assure him that it's wonderful, and that he can wear whatever he wants. Already he's learning that adults aren't the all-powerful gods we pretend to be.
Adults can disagree; families can disagree. We can disagree with that family member and still get along together. I hope he remembers those lessons when he gets older and the issue isn't sparkles, but piercings or career choices.
6. He knows we accept the choices he makes for his body.
Not only does this promote bodily autonomy, but it also promotes bodily acceptance. When he asked for sparkly polish at Target, I didn't tell him to pick something else. When he wanted it on his nails, I picked up the bottle and started painting.
His father and I respected his right to make decisions about his body. We accepted him for who he is and what he wants, even though he knows I prefer when he picks black polish. I hope he remembers this acceptance as time goes on, and that it continues to play a major role in our relationship.
7. He can open up about peer pressure.
I never wanted to punch a five-year-old until some little miss priss told him that nail polish is only for girls. He was so upset. We talked awhile about peer pressure, how people can be downright wrong, and how some people don't share the same ideas we have, and that he doesn't have to please everyone.
We asked him if he liked his nail polish, and he said yes. We explained that's all that matters. We never heard about it again.
We know that not everyone would choose to let their boys wear nail polish, but it's been a positive part of our son's life. He's gotten all sort of benefits, other than the sparkles. I'm happy he chooses his sparkles and not just because it makes him happy. It's helping him be a better person. And in the end, that's what parenting is all about.