3 Reasons I Let My Boys Paint Their Toenails

When my kids express interests outside the gender norm for boys, here’s why I let them go.

Let Them Pain Their Toenails

Despite being raised by a self-professed tomboy, I’m a pretty feminine person. My boys are used to watching me color my toes any given shade of the rainbow. One summer my oldest son looked on with whimsy as I polished my toes, and with yearning in his voice said, “Mommy, I want to paint my toenails!”

I went with my knee-jerk reaction and humored him. Fourth of July was coming up, so I pulled out my red and blue polish. When my youngest son woke from his nap, he spotted the Fourth of July nails and announced his own desire for red and blue toes. The craze followed us to our afternoon swim session, where my sons’ friend, also a boy, spotted my handiwork and requested a pedicure.

To the chagrin of my satisfied customers, the next day called for polish remover. My sons’ friend reported his festive toes to his mom, whose response got interpreted as not amused. My boys didn’t fare any better.

“Daddy says boys don’t paint their nails,” said my oldest son when he returned to my house after the holiday.

“Well, that’s an opinion, not a fact,” I said to my son. “I’ll talk to Daddy about it.”

The Downside of Gender Norms

I’m a little different than the average American. My brother came out at 18 years old, and he wasn’t the last person to do so as we transitioned into adulthood. My life has been filled with people of varying gender identities and sexual orientations, and I’ve learned that the two don’t necessarily line up as we’re conditioned to expect. Trying to control gender identity or sexual orientation through allowed activities and wardrobe choices is about as effective as expecting rice or pasta for dinner based on cooking method rather than what is actually in the pot.

I’ve seen first-hand the effects of trying to make a person into something they’re not. It wreaks havoc on the individual and the people who are closest to them. I want a better life for my boys. So when they express interests outside the gender norm for boys, here’s why I let them go.

3 Reasons To Let Them Be

1. I want them to be free to explore and be who they are. 

Nothing feels better than being you, and finding yourself requires the freedom to explore. My boys started young. They wear mix-match tie dye and special requested a purple truck from Santa one year. They’ve jumped from soccer to swimming and then from gymnastics to flag football. They’re testing their potential as humans by following their interests, traditional or not. Who am I, or anyone else, to stop them?

2. I want them to learn what it means to be a man. 

I don’t know a whole lot about what it means to be a man because I haven’t had many positive male role models in my life. But I do know that being a man has nothing to do with color preferences and clothing choices. In the 1800s boys traditionally wore dresses until they were 6 or 7 years old. And even in the early 1900s, pink was considered a boy color. I want my boys to focus on the actions and character traits that make for a good human instead of getting stuck on outward appearances that change with the times.

3. I want them to be secure in themselves.

All of life is a practice. We start with the little things when we’re young. My oldest son got teased by boys in his dad’s neighborhood for wearing nail polish on Independence Day. One possible response was to soothe his hurt feelings and take the polish off. But how will that life lesson translate when he’s older and gets pressured to do something because everybody else is doing it? What happens when he gets teased for something he can’t change? That’s why I didn’t break out the polish remover for my own son.

Put the Ball in His Court

The next time my boys’ Dad dropped them off at my house, I engaged him in a conversation about his reported opinion: “Boys don’t paint their nails.” The boys waited quietly, playing with their Hot Wheel tracks in the living room while we finished.

“What did you and Daddy decide?” said my oldest son after his Dad left.

Trying to control gender identity or sexual orientation through allowed activities and wardrobe choices is about as effective as expecting rice or pasta for dinner based on cooking method rather than what is actually in the pot.

“We agreed that you get to decide what you want to do,” I told him. It’s a mantra I summon often when they get conflicting information between households.

“I don’t want to paint my toes anymore,” said my son. I wasn’t surprised. He’s sensitive and has been progressively aware of each thing that makes him different since he was three years old.

“That’s fine,” I said. “The bottom line is that you get to decide for yourself what to wear, and you don’t make fun of other people for what they decide.”

He seemed to understand.

Boys Will Be Boys

I’ve rarely tried to impose special interests, masculine or feminine, on my boys. My parenting style has been to expose them to life and let them follow their muse. Usually they pursue traditionally masculine interests despite being raised in a single-mom household by a feminine woman who wants nothing to do with their beloved cars and trains. My boys are mostly what modern culture would call boy, and I’ve never tried to change that.

It’s not my job to tell them what to do or what not to do, or to pretend gender differences don’t exist. My boys play rough, indulge in potty humor, and appreciate the novelty of a guys night with my partner. But I’m committed to teaching them the strength it takes to feel their feelings, the importance of not just providing for but caring for their future families, and the confidence that’s necessary to be whole-heartedly whoever they turn out to be.

That’s the way I intend to raise my humans.

How do you respond when your children express interests outside gender norms? Is their other parent on the same page as you?

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Last updated: June 21, 2019


  1. Christopher says:

    Parenting is not easy. I struggle with the line between training and letting them find the way. Sometimes it works sometimes not. I have never wanted any of my children to shy away from something just because there friends didn’t do it. I think the best thing is to set a good example and what I have experienced is that your children tend to follow your actions way more than your words. At least you are trying and that is about the most we can do. Keep it up and the writing too.

  2. Melissa says:

    Thank you, Chris! I definitely agree that kids learn best through example. I hope my actions are teaching them to be open-minded, tolerant, and authentic. Fingers crossed that will outweigh any “issues” they inherit from me!

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