Over the course of the past year and a half, my nearly 6-year-old son has gone from rocking barrettes, ponytails and painted nails to being much more concerned about looking “like a boy”. He’s said on more than one occasion, “I don’t want anyone to think I’m a girl” as he pulls out a barrette or changes his mind about painting his nails.
Developmentally, I know this makes sense; peer influences have increased in importance coupled with the reality that our media and many families in our community continue to reinforce traditional gender norms. Whereas my son was once comfortable to self-express in a variety of ways, knowing his father and I supported any and all of his choices, our support is no longer enough for him to feel safe to dress and accessorize as he once did.
It’s been a sad transition to witness as a parent. I’ve struggled to meet my son where he’s at while also continue to challenge and interrupt moments when he tries to reinforce antiquated gender norms.
My beloved Aunt gifted my children a year worth of books, selected monthly by staff at Charis books, Atlanta’s incredible feminist, independent book store. Sparkle Boy tells the story of Casey,
“…[who] loves to play with his blocks, puzzles, and dump truck, but he also loves things that sparkle, shimmer, and glitter. When his older sister, Jessie, shows off her new shimmery skirt, Casey wants to wear a shimmery skirt too. When Jessie comes home from a party with glittery nails, Casey wants glittery nails too. And when Abuelita visits wearing an armful of sparkly bracelets, Casey gets one to wear, just like Jessie. The adults in Casey’s life embrace his interests, but Jessie isn’t so sure. Boys aren’t supposed to wear sparkly, shimmery, glittery things. Then, when older boys at the library tease Casey for wearing ‘girl’ things, Jessie realizes that Casey has the right to be himself and wear whatever he wants. Why can’t both she and Casey love all things shimmery, glittery, and sparkly? Here is a sweet, heartwarming story about acceptance, respect, and the freedom to be yourself in a world where any gender expression should be celebrated.”
My son immediately took to this story, asking me to read it three times in a row the day I brought it home. He saw himself in Casey, as he too liked trucks, blocks AND nail painting.
During our initial readings, we discussed how supportive Casey’s parents and Abuelita were around his self-expression and stayed curious about why his sister and the older children in the library felt differently. My son suggested, “maybe Jessie heard other kids being teased at school so she thought boys and girls couldn’t like the same things.”
We also discussed the moment Casey is made fun of for wearing a skirt and having painted nails in the library. Not only has my son experienced being picked on for the way he self-expresses, this year he also teased another little boy for wearing his hair in ponytails.
“This part makes me mad,” my son said, upon my reading the part where Casey begins to cry after he’s teased.
“I understand. I feel mad and sad,” I said. “It reminds me of when you were teased for wearing your hair in the three ponytails at school. Do you remember that?” He nodded sadly.
“It also reminds me of that time you told Timmy* ponytails were for girls when he wore his hair in ponytails.”
“Oh yeah. That wasn’t very nice,” he admitted.
“No, it wasn’t. It’s important for us to remember that everyone gets to decide for themselves what they like. We can dress however we want and play however we want. It shouldn’t matter if we are a boy or a girl or identify in any other way.”
“Yea,” my son agreed. “I’m glad Jessie learns that Casey gets to be who he wants at the end.”
“Me, too” I affirmed.
The other morning, my son asked me to paint his nails before school. The last time he painted his nails, he was adamant he could only use silver or gold nail polish because those colors were okay for boys. This time, however, my son asked if he could alternate between purple and silver. I muffled my surprise, immediately agreed and got to work.
As I was brushing the purple onto his nails, he said quietly, “I hope George* doesn’t say anything about my purple nails.” My heart broke a little. George is one of my son’s closet friends and in the past, George has commented about my son’s choices in ways he negatively internalized.
“Well, what do you think George might say?” I asked.
“That purple is for girls,” my son responded.
“What could you say back to George if he says that?”
“I could say, ‘I get to be who I want to be!'” suggested my son. I gave him a big squeeze.
“I love that, honey. And I love you for exactly who you are.” We finished his nails and left for school shortly thereafter.
As the day came to a close, I wavered on if I should check in with my son about how school had gone with his purple nails since he had not yet mentioned anything. I decided to bring it up, trying my best to keep it super casual.
“Hey, how did folks like your nails today?” I asked as we put on his pajamas.
“Oh! George didn’t say a thing! No one did.” I breathed a little sigh of relief.
“I’m so proud of you for deciding for yourself what you like, no matter what other kids might think. You’re brave, like Moana! (one of our family sayings)” He gave me a huge smile and puffed out his chest in pride.
“Yea and I’m brave like Sparkle Boy!” he beamed.
“You really are,” I agreed.
Y’all. The power of books! The power of representative story telling! The power of adults affirming children’s choices! It was one of those parenting moments where all the research out there is corroborated right before your eyes.
I’m so appreciative of the author Lesléa Newman for writing Sparkle Boy. I’m so appreciative of Charis books for stocking such rich, dynamic and diverse children’s books. I’m so appreciative of my Aunt for her generous gift. I’m so appreciative of my curious and bold nearly 6-year-old who continues to surprise me with his insight and sensitivity. I have no idea how long this burst of confidence around his self-expression will last, but for now I will relish and positively reinforce the hell out of this moment.
*names have been changed.