Toes Making A Fist

Toddler shoes so classic they're now on eBay. (image: JuneeMoonVintage)

Toddler shoes so classic they’re now on eBay. (image: JuneeMoonVintage)

There was an era when stiff white baby shoes were de rigur. Parents were assured their children’s feet wouldn’t develop properly without them. This was before the Internet, so it wasn’t easy to disprove industry lobbyists’ advertising campaigns, women’s magazine articles, and mainstream doctors repeating all the same falsehoods.

But my husband and I, being freethinkers, believed barefoot must surely be nature’s perfect design, so we didn’t get our first child shoes until he was nearly two. Grandparents on both sides muttered about our poor unshod child wearing hand-knit socks in the winter. When we finally broke down, we broke down completely, and ended up buying those same little white shoes.  (Freethinkers? Not so much.)

We knew we’d made a mistake. The shoes cost approximately the same as our weekly grocery budget. They seemed to cause our child to fall more often and made his gait somewhat awkward, so we put them on him infrequently.  The sound of those shoes clumping on the floor brought back memories, I swear, of wearing similar shoes when I was small except that mine had maddening little bells attached. <shakes fist on behalf of toddler selfhood>

We were determined to get more flexible footwear when we took our child to get his second pair a few months later. We eased his little feet out of the white baby shoes and the shoe salesman checked sizing on one of those metal measurers unique to shoe stores. (The term is Brannock Device, I looked it up.)

This time, we insisted on a soft pair of sneakers. The salesman knelt, put the shoes on, laced them up, and asked our little boy to walk in them. Our sweetie did as he was told. I don’t know if he he’d been wearing shoes he’d outgrown or if the new shoes finally fit his wide feet, but he took a few tentative steps and a big smile slid across his face. He said clearly, with the wonder of the newly liberated, “My toes don’t have to make a fist any more!”

The phrase has remained a family joke even though that toddler is now a young man (still with feet so wide they’re hard to fit). Each time I hear it I cringe to think of the pain his poor crunched up toes must have been in. And it continues to remind me that children, especially young children, can’t always tell us something is wrong. They accommodate as best they can to a tight fit, to falls, to an awkward gait, even to !#*! bells that jingle at every step.

Children accommodate to all sorts of things. That’s why we’re not aware they’re suffering from chronic headaches (as my daughter did) or meekly compliant around a babysitter who hits (as my friend’s son was) or have to battle rats that get in their bedrooms at night (as a child in our neighborhood did). We have no idea why it seems they’ve become clingy, whiny, or unreasonable.  Sometimes we can’t see any change in their behavior at all.

It’s a blessed relief when we’re finally able to figure out what’s wrong. Only then can we make it better.

Let’s remember to be on the lookout out for anything in our children’s lives that forces them to accommodate  to misery.  Let’s keep a look out for constriction and pain in our own lives too.

kids can't tell us what's wrong

I’d love to hear your own “toes making a fist” stories.


36 thoughts on “Toes Making A Fist

  1. They finally worked out why one of my nieces wasn’t doing so well in school. She was as blind as a bat. My sister was determined that if she had to wear glasses, they’d by God be nice glasses. She was well repaid when my niece turned to her with a look of wonder and said “Mummy, I didn’t know you were pretty”…

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  2. Wonderful post. Those shoes make me cringe. Sad thing is, many people still believe in them (the shoes and the other toe cringing restrictions). Just 4-7 years back, as I discussed baby shoes with Lithuanian friends and relatives, over there the belief of sturdy shoes for proper foot development was very much supported still. . . year 2010. Makes me think of Japanese women binding their feet. Let’s tell our children more often they are beautiful and completely perfect just the way they are.

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  3. Laura! You are a “Geiger-counter” to detect human stories,mining out lost memmories of my past. Here is the nugget I had repressed: 1965 I was still in training with a trainee’s stipend for income. Against my plans, I was subjected to “Baby-gotta-have-shoes” moral pressure. So we buy those exact white rigid, neighbor-approved -Sunday-schoo-gear. OK, long-story-short:I woke up the next morning to find that the dog had cheered one of them to a state from which there was no recovery!😱😱😱 c

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  4. Thank you for sharing. It reminds me how we are all operating within our own limitations and with disabilities we don’t even realize. At the same time we can be bound to old solutions that don’t serve us anymore. (We deserve every kindness we can extend to one another.) in lak’ech Debra

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  5. I always remember the day my little girl turned around and said,
    “I can’t wait to move out, so that I can get some peace and sleep”
    It transpired that the family cat had been going into her bedroom about 5.00 am every morning and Meowing at her and pulling at her bed covers. The family cat is now no longer allowed upstairs and my little girl who is turning into a young lady has peace and sleep and hopefully doesn’t want to move out for a very long time.
    Thank you for publishing this article, it is very thought provoking.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The first time we put shoes on my daughter–she was about a year old and had been walking since she was 91/2 months old–she stood in the middle of the store, made her body rigid, and screamed. We took the shoes off of her and didn’t try them again for a long time–when she showed more interest on her own. My daughter is 20 years old now–she still prefers bare feet–and tends to opt for footwear that is practical–boots and sneakers, etc. My sons are the same way.

    Children–and many adults, for that matter–don’t have the tools to eloquently express what is bothering them, so they get right down to the emotion that sums up the outcome of the problem and let fly. It’s often a challenge to discover the real problem, but it’s one of the greatest things I learned as a parent–taking the time to hear what’s really being said–or expressed in other ways.

    Great post–and I love how your son expressed comfort once found: “My toes don’t have to make a fist any more!”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I recall spending so much money on those baby shoes! And we struggled to make ends meet, but my mother and grandmother convinced me that to not buy those shoes would surely put my children at a physical disadvantage! There was no way that I was a free thinker when put up against those two. 🙂 I later had their baby shoes bronzed and made into book ends. I love your story and your son’s sweet, very funny comment about his toes making a fist. You’ve really pointed out some valuable observations about awareness to exactly what our children and grandchildren are telling us, and what they need.

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  8. These days I have beloved family members who spend big bucks to buy “brand-name” shoes for infants. So imagine a 6 month old baby wearing a pair of Nikes. I don’t think that has anything to do with the welfare of the child’s feet.

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  9. This was so precious! I got my son some high top all black shoes (converse style) to wear with his dress pants. He tried them on and shouted, “I can’t wear these! They have hips!” I said okay and he wore his tennis shoes instead. He was 4 at the time and I didn’t even know he knew the word hips. We gifted the high tops to a friend at church.

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  10. Thanks for sharing this story. For the most part, my daughters wore hand-me-down shoes that were nicely ‘broken in.’ That’s not to say we didn’t experience paying an arm and a leg for those shoes you mention. We did. Once. The next younger cousin got a very nice pair of shoes indeed. I attached little bells to my little one’s shoes so I could keep track of her in the noisy laundromat. I still kept an eye out, but the jingling helped. 🙂

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  11. My son was 2.5 and was non-verbal. We pulled out of the driveway and he started screaming at the top of his lungs. I tried calming him down, but it wasn’t anger or hurt screaming. I pulled over and tried to explain that I can’t drive safe when he screams that loud. Turned around in my seat and found out he was trying to tell me his baby sisters carseat wasn’t buckled in. I refastened the seat and instant calm.

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  12. I haven’t been driving in a while, but back when I did, I used to yell at other drivers. One day I was driving along with my oldest son, who was about 3 or 4 years old at the time, sitting in the back. Along the way I got angry at a a driver ahead of me – I don’t remember what I said – and from the backseat I heard, “Not me.” That was my son realizing that my seemingly random outbursts in the car were not directed at him. When I heard this and realized that all this time he thought I had been getting angry at him, and worst of all with no apparent cause, my heart broke. Several years later, I still feel awful about it, especially since I had grown up with an angry parent myself, and I know (and still live with) the effects of that. (Now that we’re unschooling, though, my relationship with both my sons is much better.)

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  13. According to my mother I used to sit down on the pavement a lot and refuse to get up and walk again for ages each time as a toddler. I was also painfully shy and often had sad attacks for no apparent reason. In school I hated walking long distances or being made to run. I avoided sports as I was bullied by other kids for being so bad at it and I used to feel so sick every Friday morning that eventually I was exempted from Friday sport. But everybody thought I was just lazy, even my parents, who still didn’t force me to participate in sport but still thought it was because I was a bit lazy.

    Took until I went to a podiatrist at 15 with my mother for mystery increasing knee pain that was stopping me from being able to walk the short 5 min distance to school without crying, for both them and me to realise that I’d been suffering from debilitating pain in my feet, ankles and knees my whole childhood. I had been living with the chronic pain for so long that I thought it was normal and that everybody else had the same and that I must just be extra weak of character to not be able to stand it. When in fact, I had been in such constant pain that it was incredible I’d done so well in my academics despite it.

    Special shoes were made up to relieve the immediate pain and instantly I was more able to concentrate. I have not become a runner, but I was finally able to walk for more than 5mins without pain. I also finally came out of my shell socially and grew in confidence in every way.

    Fast forward to adulthood, we still don’t know what caused my foot problems (although from reading about skeletal development and alignment since, I strongly suspect the ‘proper’ shoes I as always dutifully stuffed into from babyhood didn’t help) and I’ll probably never be able to run without pain, but from working on my posture and making compensations I can now finally wear fairly normal walking sneakers and go about my normal days without the chronic foot and leg pain.

    My kids have inherited my very wide feet and prefer to go barefoot or can choose to wear their minimal and flexible soled shoes (hard to find in wide enough and right sizes, mind!) and they’ve not had a problem. My 2yo vehemently refuses all footwear except for gumboots/wellies in winter and the one time my mother nudged me into trying to go shoe shopping with him, he cried in horror and ripped off every pair of shoes we tried on him. The shoe shop owner shook his head in dismay and said well he can’t wear gumboots for the rest of his life, and you can’t let him make decisions like this all the time can you! I said why not, and why not?

    We left the shop with no new shoes,and no toes making fists.

    Great article Laura!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sad attacks indeed! It’s a wonder you were able to get through anything while in such pain. Kids do indeed accommodate, as you say, assuming it’s the same for everyone else. I was a terribly anxious, worry-prone child. I assumed either something was terribly wrong with me or everyone else just more successfully dealt with physical symptoms of panic and chronic worry that plagued me.


  14. My son was SO SKINNY even though he ate all the time. It never made any sense to me and he said he was fine. I started to notice his stomach seemed puffier and he acted fatigued, but he kept saying he was okay. He was 8, so I believed him. Eventually, I took him to his dr and had some tests run, including an x-ray. His bowels were almost COMPLETELY IMPACTED. It looked like he hadn’t taken a real poop in years. I had him hospitalized and cleaned his system out and he was in wonder when he got out. He thought it was normal to have horrible gas pains constsntly, so much so that he never mentioned it. I felt like the worst mother on the world, but I’m so glad I pushed when the dr told me nothing was wrong!


  15. My son is transgender. It took him a long time to find the words to tell me how his toes were making fists. Fortunately I was able to help him with the everything he needed for a successful transition, but I think of all the years before that (and his depression) with such sadness.

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