It was Sunday morning, and I was arguing with my 9-year-old to comb his hair. It’s really the only day that I insist he do it. I want him to look presentable, sure, but I also don’t like the idea of him looking like all the other little boys at church with mashed, lopsided hair, and shirts wrinkled and un-tucked. All the little boys in the congregation drag their feet into the building as if making themselves presentable for a few hours is some horrible nasty thing that just can’t be done.
And what I think is the most frustrating part of getting your children to look nice is that you know exactly how special your children are, and you honestly want that to be presented inside and out. But often times the inside special is easier to see than the outside special, like when your child goes to church with his fly down.
The reality of little boys is this: Regardless of the hour, all of my son’s peers look like they recently crawled out of bed. I work at a university, and I must say, that I often fear my son will never grow out of this phase and be that one oddball 20-something who often sits in my classroom with a line of mashed hair on the one side, smelling like BO and Doritos, with a look that lets you know he assumes there is nothing wrong with his clear disregard for social presentation.
Tristan was hiding in his room now, sprawled out on his bead, looking at the celling. I approached him, the whole time thinking about picking my battles. I wondered if it was all worth it. Part of me hoped that he’d become interested in someone down the road, perhaps in junior high, and she’d shut him down because he looked unkempt with swaths of greasy uncombed hair. Sometimes I play out this moment in my head.
Preteen Tristan chatting with some 11-year-old blond beauty who looks him straight in his blue-green dewy eyes and says, “I just can’t. Your hair is embarrassing.”
Sure, he’d cry. He’d take it to heart. I would feel bad and comfort him. But once that was all over, he’d invest in a nice comb and some pomade.
But the reality is, I don’t know if any of that’s going to happen, and so the reality is my vision for his future heartbreak over his messy hair is actually me projecting my feelings onto his future.
I sat on the edge of Tristan’s bed and said, “Listen, dude. This isn’t that big of a deal. Just comb your hair. I only ask you to do it once a week. Look, I’ll even go get the comb and water bottle. You can stay in your bed.”
He put up his hands and said, “No, no, no,” all of it very dramatic and over the top, similar to when that sadistic Nazi in Raiders of the Lost Ark approached Marion Ravenwood with a red-hot poker. Suddenly I was left with that original fear that so many parents often get, wondering if I was being an overbearing father. But the reality is, I wasn’t. I was just asking him to comb his damn hair.
Eventually, he relented, went into the bathroom for five seconds, and came out with a silver-dollar-sized wet spot on the crown of his head where he’d obviously wet his palm in a half-assed attempt to pat down one of his many wild patches of hair.
So I asked him the obvious question: “Did you use a comb?”
Tristan rolled his eyes and dropped his shoulders, clearly put out, and said, “I don’t see why I need to use a comb.”
I led him into the bathroom. Surprisingly, he didn’t dig in his heels like I expected. He just followed me with a worn-out look of disdain. I wet his hair with a water bottle and combed through his tangled and matted hair. I parted it to the side, giving him a boyish charm. Then we both looked in the mirror, and I smiled at him, and he smiled back with that half-grin thing he often does when he’s trying not to smile. I thought for sure that I’d gotten through to him.
Then he looked up at me right before I had the opportunity to tell him how good he looked, and reached up and violently rubbed his scalp. Then he mashed it forward with his hands, and while he didn’t look nearly as nice as he did a moment earlier, he looked far better than 30 minutes ago when we started all this, and so I suppose this was a compromise.
I let out a breath and crouched down next to him and asked the question that I always ask when trying to get him to take more pride in the way he looks. “Is combing your hair really that bad?”
He nodded. “I just want to look the way I want to look,” he said.
As much as I wanted to argue with him about this logic, as much as I wanted to tell him about work-issued polo shirts and slacks and all the other mandated dress standards that await him, I didn’t.
I just thought about picking my battles, like all parents do in moments like this. I hoped that he’d eventually figure it out. And then I gave him a hug because I didn’t know what else to do.
Sometimes kids are so frustrating, and it’s not always over the big things. Most of the time, at this age anyway, it’s over the little things, like combing hair or eating what’s offered for dinner. And sometimes, in the heat of the moment, you don’t stop to think about how each lesson isn’t learned in one swoop. It’s learned through a million arguments and compromises, and although you really want to think that you fixed something right there and then, you probably didn’t. At least not yet.
“You’ll figure this out one day,” I said. “I believe in you.”
Tristan rolled his eyes.
And then we both got in the van and headed to church.