When our son was a preschooler, he loved to have his toenails painted, just like Mama. He always asked for a rainbow, with different hues across all 10 toes. As I held his little foot, delighting in this self-expression, I also worried. Inevitably, some child or even adult would inform him that toenail polish is “just for girls.”
And they did — nearly every time. When our confused child turned to me, my response was, “Everything is for everyone, and you can make up your own mind.” While I wondered if he would vow never to venture outside binary conventions again, I also hoped that a little adversity over nail polish would teach him to stand up for his own rights — and the rights of others.
Raising any child is a challenge these days. We live in a society that still privileges those who are white, male, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied and financially secure. Among my friends whose children tick only a few of those boxes, I hear many stories of advocating for their children’s basic rights and teaching them to handle potentially dangerous confrontations — with schoolyard bullies, educators and police officers.
More from the October issue:
- Brianne Selman on truly making libraries for everyone
- It’s time for Canada’s statues to fall
- Nora Sanders on her faith, challenges and the United Church’s future
But for those of us raising kids who tick many or all of those boxes, the stakes are different. In our household, my husband and I want to sensitize our son to the lived experiences of those who don’t look like him. We want him to understand he has a role to play in challenging the systemic issues that lead to inequality. We want him to feel empowered, but not to wield his power against others. To succeed, but not to take advantage of his privilege.
We read books about Malala, Gandhi and Rosa Parks. We talk about trans people, drag queens and different kinds of families. When incidents of sexism and racism appear on TV, we name them and discuss them. When we’re play wrestling and someone no longer wants to be touched, we emphasize respecting their choice. We ask him to consider the kids in his peer group who are being left out and how he might include them. Is it enough?
Two features this month have helped me think through these issues. In “Raising Better Boys,” writer Sarah Treleaven investigates programs for adolescent boys that aim to reduce toxic masculinity. And in “Rethinking the Police,” three interviews explore systemic racism within policing and how we might address it. Both stories help me better understand the importance of talking to our son about equality — and inequality — at every opportunity.
Our son is now eight and hasn’t asked to have his toes painted in a while. But the other day, he wanted them done again. Later, a boy on our street exclaimed, “You painted your toenails?!” Our son answered, “Yeah. So what?” I took his response as a small, rainbow-hued step in the right direction.
This editorial first appeared in Broadview’s October 2020 issue with the title “Raising boys.”