No, Painting Your Toddler Boy’s Toenails Doesn’t Make Him ‘Girly’

A parent on Reddit asks how to respond to haters who criticize them for agreeing to the nail polish. Bottom line: let kids be kids.

<p>Mike Kemp / Getty Images</p>

Growing up, I remember very vividly the first time I saw boys wearing nail polish. A punk rock cover star on a CD case—and it was really cool! But I also knew that boys “weren’t allowed” to wear nail polish, let alone stars. Indeed, that star was an outlier, precisely because he did things that no one considered normal before. The 90s–and decades before—saw a lot of experimentation and a lot of backlash about gender expression.

In 2023, we know gender expression is multi-faceted and beautiful—and that things like nail polish (or clothing) don’t have a gender. That’s exactly what this Reddit post is about—whether or not a little boy should have his toenails painted.

The toddler boy’s parent explains they’ve gotten strong pushback from family members about the idea—but all they want is for their child to be happy. And, well, painting their son’s toenails makes him happy.

Many commenters agree with the parent’s impulses: it’s not hurting anyone to paint your toddler’s toenails. One even pointed out, “My son has his nails painted all the time. You don’t use nail polish with your vulva, so it is neither a girl nor a boy product.”

Nail polish has no gender.

The poster wants to know what to say to those family members who push back, and for our family, the answer is quite simple, and has to do with the bodily autonomy of our children: My child is free to be whoever they want to be in this world. I will protect their right to authentic, autonomous expression.

If that includes painting their toenails, so be it.

Encouraging Self-Expression and Autonomy in Children

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) explains gender identity is fluid for quite some time. Children can recognize differences between genders at 2 years old, but it’s not until they’re 4 that they really have a concrete sense of who they are. Even then, the things typically seen as “things boys do” or “things girls do” have changed over time. While it’s natural to have ideas about what gender conformity looks like, pushing children to fill roles that don’t fit how they feel can harm them over time.

Importantly, autonomy and shame in young children are developed around the same time as gender identity and expression, according to renowned psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. Increased autonomy and lack of shame are linked to better mental healthcare outcomes and the trust of parents.

Remember: clothing, colors, and yes, even nail polish, are not gender-specific. There was a time when men wore heels and makeup as the standard for beauty. Famously, King Louis XIV set the standard for makeup-wearing in the 17th Century and arguably set the stage for modern fashion as we know it. But men wearing makeup has been recorded as far back as Ancient Egypt.

My young daughters, 4 and 6, are starting to ask tough questions about what gender means and looks like. Can boys wear makeup? What about skirts? Jewelry? Can girls be strong? Can I be a king?

These are all very normal questions, and in a house with a nonbinary parent in a heteronormative-passing relationship, all ones I expected. My answer is always very simple: you can wear what you like, act how you like (provided you’re not hurting anyone), and be whoever you want to be. In a world that does its best to put children into boxes (from “I’m a flirt” shirts for toddler girls to hyper-masculine shirts for boys), our family has tried to take the middle path.

Related: A TikTok Dad Went Viral for Calling Out Sexist Fashion

Here are some ways we try to be open to gender expression and personal style in our house:

  1. We let our children dress themselves—it builds autonomy and personal style. In our family, we have one very expressive girly girl who loves to dress in tutus and pink and tiaras and one girl who prefers shorts and tees in simple colors without patterns so she can best splash in mud puddles. Kids aren’t ours to manipulate and dress like dolls. They’re human beings from the start!

  2. We answer questions about gender honestly—because we trust our kids to ask tough questions, like the fairness of who gets to wear and do what, we know they’ll feel safe if they ever need to come out to us.

  3. We buy books with myriad gender expressions—our current favorite is Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. Seeing all kinds of dress and gender expression teaches acceptance, and shows them that there’s not only one right way to be.

  4. We steer clear of hurtful phrases—like “girls should dress this way”—because clothing, nail polish, color, none of those things have gender.

In the end, I hope the poster on Reddit decided to do what makes their son happy. Even if their toddler is not gender fluid, and just likes how nail polish looks on his toenails, developing autonomy is a good and important thing for parents to support. Further, allowing a child to express who they are bolsters empathy for everyone around them, including adults. So let’s let kids be kids–in all their beautiful and varied ways–and pass the sparkly pink nail polish.

Related: What It Means to Be an LGBTQ+ Ally—And How to Raise One

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