Flowers are red, fingernails are pink


My son Angelo, who’s 3, insisted this weekend that his mom and his sisters paint his nails. It was a lovely shade of pinkish, on the darker side. Not quite red. I don’t know what to call it and didn’t think to ask. All I know is, it was on my son’s fingernails, and I groaned a little.

It’s not the first time Angelo has blurred the gender line. Earlier this summer, he insisted his mom buy him a “Frozen” cap with Elsa’s hair sewn into it. And a T-shirt with Elsa’s image on it. My wife found a blue one.

He wore that thing at Disney World. And he loved it. And so did we.

Now don’t get me wrong. Angelo typically wears boy stuff. Ninja Turtle shirts. Batman raincoat. Iron man shoes. Mickey Mouse shirts (no interest in wearing Minnie or Daisy items). But every now and then, Elsa.

I see a little boy wearing a shirt and hat honoring the hero of a movie he loves. Why? What do you see?

I see a little boy wearing a shirt and hat honoring the hero of a movie he loves. Why? What do you see?

But something happened Monday night my wife and I were not prepared for. Angelo was lying down next to my wife, and he said to her, “I don’t wanna wear nail polish.”

“Why not?” my wife asked.

“Nail polish is for girls.”

“Who told you that?”

Angelo said his preschool teacher told him nail polish is for girls. He repeated the accusation to me. And I have to admit, I was pretty upset about it. So was my wife.

Now, let me get this out of the way: the teacher denies this, and I have no reason to disbelieve her. We know Angelo’s teacher to be a wonderful, dedicated and compassionate person. We have no idea why Angelo said what he said, but 3-year-olds have been known to misinterpret what they hear from adults. Whatever. It’s not the point, and we love Angelo’s teacher and school.

But whatever the source was, Angelo felt criticized for showing up at school with painted nails. And that makes me uncomfortable.

If my son wants to wear nail polish, that is his business. He’s 3. He’s not declaring his sexuality. He is not rebelling against gender politics. You know what he’s doing? He’s looking at painted nails and saying “Cool! Can I try that?” And we’re saying yes. Because if my son wants to go to school with dark pink, light red nails, he is going to school with dark pink, light red nails.

And an Elsa hat with a wig attached. We want our son to feel free to express himself, to let us know who he is, not to mold him into what he “shalt” be. We are not going to change who he is by suppressing his self-expression, but we will be able to love and support him more completely if we allow him to be himself.

We removed the nail polish Tuesday morning, and that made me a little sad. Not because I want him to wear it. I don’t, to be honest. But I want him to decide on his own that he doesn’t want to wear it. Otherwise, he’s being less than who and what he wants to be. “If you want to put it back on or pick another color, just tell us,” I said to him as we finished.

Maybe he’ll go with green next time.

One of the saddest songs I ever heard is called “Flowers are Red,” by Harry Chapin. It’s about a little boy who colors flowers using every crayon in the box, and the teacher who successfully “straightens him out” by instructing him that flowers are red and leaves are green.

In case that description is too subtle, here’s a spoiler: The teacher is the villain in this song, and the child is the victim.  There’s nothing subtle about it. There is a correct answer to “what are the letters of the alphabet?” and “what is two plus two?” There is, however, no correct answer to “what colors do you want to use for your art?”

Or your fingernails.

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