What We Say To Our Kids, And What They Hear – Scary Mommy

What We Say To Our Kids, And What They Hear

From the time I was 9 years old, I was always fresh off a bad perm.

My mother, weary in her attempts to untangle my super-fine, mottled mess of hair, which was as thin as it was wispy, decided a home perm was the only solution. Pun fully intended.

So I resembled a Chia Pet during the Reagan years. I tortured my locks, or should I say my mother did, into regularly accepting a head full of pink rollers pinned so tightly my skull wanted to scream “uncle!” Stinky chemicals inspired my gag reflex. And, then, after the final, blessed rinse in the kitchen sink, I’d stare at my kinky visage in a nearby mirror and think, Hmmm. Guess that’s as good as it gets.

Because the unspoken message, which I know my mother never intended to send, was that there was something wrong with me. With my hair and with what came naturally. I absorbed this idea like a sponge. I never questioned it. Which is why I continued perming my hair into damaged oblivion as a young adult and well into the first Bush reign.

Of course, this was the Dynasty decade, when bigger was better. Not just hair. Shoulder pads. Wall Street excesses. Boom boxes. And all around me there were plenty of other girls working a gravity-defying frizz. I can’t speak for them, of course. But for me, I continued this curly quest—antithetical to all things authentic to my actual physiology—because I’d internalized the belief that my own hair, left alone, was definitely not OK.

My mother never said so. But it’s what I believed.

I try my best now to avoid sending these kind of unspoken critiques to my school-age daughters. It’s difficult as a mother not to, I admit. Sometimes we can’t help but offer the veiled comment. But we should first consider how it will be heard or understood before offering our unsolicited opinion.

What I said:

“Are you sure you want to wear the green plaid shorts with the pink-and-black zebra stripe shirt? I might rethink that, honey. No?” [Bite lip.] “OK.”

What my daughter heard:

You think my outfit is ugly, and I’m a baby who can’t pick out her own clothes.

What I said:

“Um, the side ponytail is … maybe a little messy.”

What my daughter heard:

You think my hairstyle is dumb.

What I said:

“I can see your butt crack in those jeans.”

What my daughter heard:

You think I’m too fat for my pants.

What I said:

“When is the last time you washed your hair? Is all I’m asking.”

What my daughter heard:

Criticism. Criticism. Criticism.

What I said:

“Your friend wears her cutoffs a little high on the leg.”

What my daughter heard:

You think my friend is inappropriate. Maybe even slutty.

What I said:

“Maybe if you saved your allowance like your sister instead of spending it on junk the second some cash hits the palm of your hand, you could afford to buy a cool new Lego set, too.”

What my daughter heard:

You think my sister is better than me. Maybe you love her more, too.

These are just a few examples. I’m guilty of weighing in on occasion on my daughters’ dress sense, their friend selection, and their habits, too, even if I often try to dance around my true, direct sentiment. Guidance is of course an essential part of parenting. But there’s a fine line between guidance and critical skepticism. Our kids, even when they sass back, generally accept our assessment of them. Whole cloth.

So as I work the wet tangles from my youngest daughter’s baby-fine, always-knotted tresses after her nightly shower, I also swallow my desire to scream, “Let’s just cut this shit off, once and for all!” I hate her tangles, this is true. But her hair? It’s her hair, and this is how it grows. So it’s fine just the way it is. When it comes to my daughters and who they are at their core, I wouldn’t change a thing.