An Open Letter to Jenna Lyons: Thank You for Beckett’s Pink Toenails

Posted on April 15, 2011 by Lara in gender, media, parenting

Dear Jenna,

Given the photos I recently saw of you and your adorable son, and the quotes I’ve read in which you describe your relationship with him, I suspect you already know most of what I’m about to say. But I’ll say it anyway, because as a mother, I know that we can’t get enough positive feedback and support of our parenting choices. And as a scientist, I can’t sit on my hands while pundits twist the truth about how gender “works” while ignoring the very real benefits of more relaxed gender roles for children.

You probably already know that there’s absolutely no scientific evidence that suggests children’s gender identity or later sexuality are influenced by things like playing with gender-atypical toys, dressing up as the opposite sex, or engaging in gender-atypical behaviors as kids. The media firestorm generated by your son’s pink toenails is shrill and panicky—“psychological sterilization?” Really?—but it has zero basis in reality. The attacks on your choice to paint Beckett’s toes pink are, at best, ignorant, but you know that, of course.

I make no assumptions about your goals as a parent. Maybe you were simply in the mood to paint some toenails, and your son offered up his own. But in case there’s some strategy at play here, you should know that you’re right-on. Parents who minimize the focus on gender differences, gender stereotypes, and gender-typed behavior have children with more egalitarian attitudes. Those kids don’t buy into the stereotypes. They may still prefer gender-typed toys or activities—parents are only one of many influences on behavior, after all!—but they have a broader acceptance of children who engage in a variety of play and activities, including those that don’t fit our stereotypes. So as a parent with two young daughters, one of whom would rather ride a scooter than put on make-up or pretend to shave her legs, I thank you. I thank you because some day your son will meet a little girl like my daughter and he won’t bat an eye.

Speaking of other children…Well, you probably know that kids who cross our rigid gender boundaries are more likely to get teased. They’re more likely to experience peer rejection. Kids can be little gender police (egged on by bigger gender police, as we’ve seen in the media). Your son’s preference for pink might cause him some hurt feelings and some tears. That’s scary for a parent to consider; I’m not trying to minimize how tough that is.

But in case you’re wondering, the long-term outlook is good. Children with a more egalitarian outlook are likely to develop into adults with a good balance of both stereotypically “masculine” traits like assertiveness and “feminine” traits like nurturance. And adults with that balance have higher self-esteem and are seen as more likeable by others. So all this outrage you’re dealing with now, all of the insults and judgment? Your proof will be in the pudding.