When Ellie was 3, her 8-year-old cousin offered to paint her nails. Ellie had never had her nails painted before.
Ellie’s mother, Jane (my cousin Rick’s wife), is one of those rare women who exudes clarion beauty; she has no need of make-up and never uses nail polish.
Surprised by the nail-painting idea but not opposed to it, Jane said, “Sure!”
When Ellie’s brother tumbled into the living room after waking up from his nap, Ellie anticipated a reaction similar to one the adults in the room had lavished upon her.
Instead of “oohing” and “ahhing,” he simply decided that he, too, needed to have his nails painted.
I tried not to laugh. I was about to say, “Most boys don’t paint their nails,” when Jane matter-of-factly said, “Sure, Cole.”
She shrugged. "They’re twins. At this age, they do everything together.”
It was a valid, sensible response.
Fifteen minutes later, the polish was dry. Cole was admiring the bright colors when the front door swung open. Ellie ran over to her Daddy, who appropriately made a big deal of her beautiful nails. (We girls naturally look to our fathers to affirm our femininity — more on that next week!)
Then came Cole.
Now, my cousin Rick is a tall man. A rugged man. A work-boots-and-flannel-shirt man. His hobbies are fly fishing and duck hunting. He has a PhD in forestry. He's also one of my favorite musicians, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite so entertained by him as I was watching the interchange that followed.
“See my nails, Daddy?” Cole said.
Rick looked perplexed. I wondered if he would laugh or choke, but what he said was: “Wow, Buddy ...”
Then, after the slightest pause: “Go get your boots. Let's help Uncle Larry chop some wood.”
Cole ran for the door. He wouldn’t have missed out on that adventure for all the pretty colors in the rainbow! (He, too, felt affirmed and as far as I know, he never gave another thought to nail polish.)
In early childhood, boys and girls play together without consideration for what they are playing at — whatever the day brings. All the while, they are learning.
Once, when my children were young, they came running down the stairs dressed in half slips. Something about the way they moved reminded me of ancient men of war.
Subconsciously trying to “redeem” my son’s masculinity, I said: “You must be Roman gladiators, off on an adventure.”
He met my comment with a puzzled expression.
“No, Mom, we’re dancing girls!”
Guess what? The fact that my son pretended to be a dancing girl one afternoon when he was 4 did not damage his gender-identity. On the contrary, imaginative play helped shape the witty intellect he possesses today. (He’s also one of the “manliest" young men I know, and when he reads my column, he laughs at the anecdotes, confident in who he is, understanding that his curiosities helped shape that confidence.)
When I was young, my best friend Mikey and I would play with Hot Wheels (his favorite) one day and with Fisher Price Little People (my favorite — I had names for each figure) the next. We were as likely to pull out the dressup clothes as to ride big wheels.
He grew up to be a Daddy who loves his family, someone who’s a good listener and conversationalist. I grew up to enjoy adventure. He’s mechanically inclined and good at all sorts of “men’s work.” He’s also capable of cooking and laundry. I love cultivating meaningful relationships and participating in the arts. I’m also no stranger to barn chores, yard work or home improvement projects.
I like to think that Mike and I sharpened “opposite gender traits” in one another early on, making us well-rounded individuals.
Yet left to our own devices, we certainly played differently.
A little boy picks up a stick and it magically transforms into a sword, or a bat. That same stick, to a little girl, is obviously a fairy’s wand. Or maybe she’ll find another stick, and they will become friends and go to the “stick ball.”
We could argue “nature or nurture,” and certainly there are exceptions to any rule, but the uniqueness with which boys and girls approach play has been documented scientifically. Parents who have opposite-gender children see it every day.
As John Eldredge points out in Wild at Heart, boys and men want a “battle to fight,” an “adventure to live” and a “beauty to rescue” while girls and women are all about being fought for and pursued, sharing the adventure with someone (adventure is relational for us) and possessing a “beauty to unveil."
Who we are as men or women has as much to do with our spirits as it does with our bodies; our deepest desires illustrate key gender differences. I call this part of us (“anatomy” that is spiritual, not physical) our “Spiratomy!” (Yes, I know, it’s fun to say.)
Our spiritual anatomy is innate; it’s part of our core makeup as males or females. Children also learn what it means to be a man or a woman through the non-verbal and verbal cues they observe in grown-ups.
Just because we are different does not mean that we can’t appreciate and be a part of the opposite gender’s desires.
As parents, it’s natural for us to want our children to value certain traits that we associate with a particular gender. That’s appropriate and good, but we also need to nurture freedom of expression. Even at times when our children’s ideas seem contrary to our own, the best choice is to encourage creativity and allow natural bent/preferences to emerge.
Fathers play a special role in that process, so Dads — be sure to read next week’s “Growth Chart.”