My boys are my life. Their joys are my joys and their struggles are my struggles. So Monday, when I walked into their mom’s house to relieve the babysitter, the look of shame and embarrassment did not sit well. As I picked up my heavier-by-the-day-six- year-old son, he buried his head into the nook between my shoulder and chest. Liam is a very independent soul who does not often hide from showing his emotions, but that day was different. I look toward his babysitter and she gave a sad, yet quizzical, look.
“Liam was teased at school today,” she whispered as if the other children in the neighborhood might hear. Liam’s head sunk deeper into my chest and his body rolled even tighter. I lifted his chin slightly and looked into those sky blue eyes.
“What for, bud?” Liam is well liked and we have thankfully had little report of teasing. I was both surprised and alarmed at the news.
He refused at first but, then, threw one hand up in the air. “My nails,” was all he got out as he returned to his hiding spot on my chest.
See, their mom had painted their nails that weekend, a sporadic but normal event in our family. Their favorite colors flashed along their fingertips emanating their loud personalities all weekend.
Then I felt my little guy, Ben, hugging at my knee, joining his brother and now burying his face into my thigh.
“Yeah,” he chimed in, “kids laughed at me, too.”
My face hardened, jaw set. In one fell swoop, my sons naivety had been wounded, the armor of innocence and acceptance chinked as the social norms of others had been forced upon them.
After wrapping up with the baby sitter, I turned to them.
“Don’t listen to those kids,” echoing the sentiments of parents all over the world. “They were probably just jealous or not as confident in who they are like the two of you.” A concept completely lost on them. But they were already moving on to playing Legos, arguing about who was using what pieces and asking for snack.
Later that night, I received a call from their mother. We updated each other about various things and I asked if the nails had come up again. She sighed, “Yeah. Ben wants to take it off his fingernails. He doesn’t want to be laughed at again.”
I was lost. I didn’t want him to cave, to allow others to force his own choices, not at four. But then I thought, you know, after all, back when she first started painting them, I was hesitant. She persisted, though, pointing how how many social norms I flouted and I had become comfortable with it; had even grown to enjoy their flashy fingertips flittering in the sun. It was a small growth moment. But I hadn’t ever really been a part of those polishing sessions. I hadn’t modeled that it’s okay to go against the grain that way, not in a way in which I pushed my own boundaries.
“I’m going to paint my nails,” I blurted or maybe half mumbled.
True it was a little late after the moment but dash it all. I went into the nearest drug store, picked out some fave colors (Cubbie blue and red, oh, and a black bottle, too…they were on special after all). Half an hour later, I had painted nails.
The next day I spent telling person after person who had asked, why my nails were painted. “For my boys,” I shared, “to show them it’s okay to be yourself and do what you enjoy.”
It was nice enough to recant this and show students in the hall that norms could be broken and judgments should be reserved, but the crowning moment was walking into Ben’s class.
I sneaked in, caught his eyes and saw that priceless end of day smile creep across his face. His eyes then darted straight to my fingers and somehow his smile grew a little more. He ran over for his usually hug, curled up like a baby hedgehog and pressed his forehead into mine. But as a girl in his class began to snicker and point it out to her neighbor, I felt the air in his proud little balloon deflate. I looked up and with my best teacher grin that’s not a grin said, “I know, right, aren’t they awesome?” doing my best reverse jazz hand. As the confusion spread and the laughs quickly ceased, I could feel Ben’s balloon pressing its sides out in all directions. His smile returned.
We are painting his and his brother’s nails in the morning. We have discussed and practiced the things we might say if someone laughs or comments. But most importantly, I can see that chink in their armor mending, their innocence rebounding, and all three of our personalities cranking the volume a little louder.