At the best of times, raising kids is a complicated business. In any given situation, multiple factors are at play: our own personalities, our children’s personalities, wider family dynamics, faith commitments, cultural assumptions, and the list goes on… and on… Very often, all we can do as parents is make our best guess at what we should be doing.
I recently found myself in a situation that gives almost perfect expression to the complexities of parenting – and this need to just muddle along. This particular situation arose when my eleven-year-old daughter decided that she wanted to put on some nail polish. Not that this was the first time that she had worn nail polish. She had done so in the past both for ‘dress up’ or as simply a fun thing to do with cousins or friends.
Yet this time was a little different. Most importantly, this was the first time she was putting on nail polish by herself, as an expression of who she was or wanted to be. It was sparkly turquoise nail polish she had gotten from one of her aunts. (Of course the aunts had to be from my side of the family – so I couldn’t even blame the in-laws for this!!)
But as my daughter was putting on the nail polish, she very quickly discovered that while it is easy to put the nail polish on your left hand (when you are right handed), it’s not so easy putting it on the right hand! When she came down from the bathroom, the nail polish was, as you might expect, uneven. There were turquoise bits on the edges of skin around her fingernails. I responded with a wonderfully helpful, “oh, that doesn’t look very good.”
And in that moment the uncertainty and conflict about what to do arose.
In the first place, I want to protect my daughter from the pressures of conformity and beauty that our culture places on her. Rooted in a cultural history that sees women as little more than objects to satisfy the male gaze, our society puts profound pressure on women to conform to contemporary standards of beauty. Rather than starting from the assumption that the body, as given, can be embraced as good and beautiful, the assumption is that time and money and effort must be put into making the body beautiful/attractive (for men!?).
Admittedly, this is a complicated issue – since the flip side of this coin is that not every use of makeup or decoration is necessarily problematic, or necessarily determined by a wish to satisfy male sexual desire. Nevertheless, it seems pretty safe to say that the massive expenditure on, and use of cosmetics in our culture is not primarily rooted women’s pursuit of their identity as women – rather, it is rooted in the pursuit of an identity and beauty that is defined by others.
So I want to protect my daughter from this. Or better, perhaps, to help her find her identity through a narrative that says she is beautiful as created. In a narrative that resists any standard of beauty that is alien to her growing identity as her own woman and person, created and gifted by God for loving service and relationships.
But here is where the conflict comes. Because in the second place I don’t want to be someone who always enforces particular behaviour for her – or someone who tells her that she is weak or wrongheaded in her exploring these questions. I want her to be free to explore life (with limits appropriate to her age, which is itself hard to sort out) and to explore her identity as a growing woman and member of the community of God’s people. Added in, of course, is the fact that not every use of makeup need be interpreted in terms of the enforcement of cultural standards of beauty, or of the pressure of the male gaze. And then there is the fact that I wanted her to be happy/confident with the nail polish on – which was less likely when it was looking messy.
All of this is why I suddenly found myself in a peculiar situation. I found myself with a nail-polish-remover-soaked paper towel in my hand, as I helped her take off the nail polish that was messy (nail polish remover stinks!).
And then I found myself with the nail polish in my hands, putting that turquoise glitter on her finger nails – in truth it wasn’t much different than painting a wall, and I’ve done plenty of that in life.
As I put on the nail polish I lectured her (yes, that’s the right word – again, just muddling through, here) about what it means to be beautiful; and how our culture pressures us to adopt certain standards of beauty; and how we are absolutely beautiful as created, without needing to add decoration or a superficial layer to our exterior; and how it is girls that particularly face this pressure to conform; and how she is beautiful just as she is.
In the middle of all of this, my wife said to our daughter: “Your daddy is one complicated guy.” Which is both true and untrue. We are all complicated, and our every interaction with our children is complicated. And more often than not we are just giving it our best shot as we try to encourage and invite our kids to live well and faith-fully. Sometimes we are better at this than at others.
Perhaps the key word in all of this is the word “trust”. I think that we become free to muddle through in this way when we trust that our kids really do have their identity someplace certain. My daughter has her identity as one who is baptized into Christ – she belongs to the God of covenant and creation, and this defines her.Through the narrative of her own baptism, she can enter into that lifelong process of putting away everything that is contrary to his kingdom of goodness and truth. And through that same narrative she can discover her own identity as one of love and service and strength, through Christ.
She has a secure identity. I can trust the one to whom this identity is given, and the one who gives it. I don’t need to be overly preoccupied with getting everything right in my parenting. I don’t need to be overly concerned about giving a perfectly clear message about what is right. But at the same time I’m invited to encourage her to become the woman and child of God she is, and to be wary of a culture that would define her otherwise.
Sometimes that will mean putting nail polish on for her, even as I lecture her about why she doesn’t need to be putting on nail polish. It’s because I am loving her as best I can.