“What should I do? Should I just let her chop it off and dye it blue?” A friend asked me this question via text a few weeks ago. Her tween daughter had been begging for weeks to cut her hair super short and dye it blue. My friend lives in an area with old-fashioned, often conservative values and seemed to be balancing her reaction between “What will people think?” and “Should I be worried about my kid?”
In a Facebook parenting group I’m in, another mother worried about her daughter dressing too “emo.” She was frustrated that all her family photos now included a sulky, funereally clad, heavily eyelinered young teen with hair hanging like a black curtain over half her face. “Should I try to make her dress more … normal?” the mother wondered to the group.
Over and over, I see parents asking fellow parents’ advice on whether they should let their kid make various changes to their appearance. Extra ear piercings, gender- or style-noncomforming clothing choices, the sudden shearing of once-long hair or the refusal to cut “too long” hair, or expressive makeup. In nearly all cases, the parents are careful to point out that their child has no behavioral issues — they’re kind and respectful, help out with chores, and do well in school. Often they also have some sport or extracurricular activity they’re involved in. The singular concern is this new and shocking (to the parents) fashion choice.
My own son has long hair that elicits comments from friends and family that run the gamut from “He has the most gorgeous hair” to “Good grief, give that kid a haircut!” Personally, I love my son’s long hair. It suits him, and he does happen to have a head of astonishingly gorgeous hair. I have hair envy for sure, as my own hair has been reduced to a flat, stringy, shedding mess. Oh, to be blessed with such thick, lustrous locks. So I have zero problems with my son’s long hair. I fully support him making the most of this genetic gift.
But even if I didn’t think my son’s hair looked great, who am I to force him to cut it? I mean, yes, I’m his parent, and given he’s 14, his father and I do still have quite a lot of say in how his daily life is structured. But he loves his hair. He’s a good kid. He earns good grades, has an awesome friend group, practices piano two to three hours per day, and enjoys spending time with his family. He’s got a great attitude and is always laughing and joking. So why would I obsess over how his hair looks? I’d feel the same way if he wanted to dye it blue. Whatever, kid. Knock yourself out. It’s literally just hair.
In my friend’s case, since her daughter was wanting to cut off many inches of hair, my advice to her was to have her daughter wait one more week to fully consider it before going ahead with the cut. Basically, say yes, but with a brief waiting period, because although the cut wouldn’t be permanent, it would take a long, long time to grow back out if her daughter ended up having regrets. As for whether or not she needed to worry, I told my friend it was totally normal for a kid her age to want to experiment with how she expresses her individuality. Unless there was some other issue she was leaving out, her near-teenager is just doing what kids her age do — trying stuff out, experimenting, figuring out who she is and how she wants to present herself to the world.
That said, there are behaviors that merit a parent’s worry. If your child is expressing a sudden and unexpected wish to change their appearance, if those changes are accompanied by other behaviors — uncharacteristic defiance, dramatic changes in appetite or sleep patterns, a new friend group you’ve got a bad gut feeling about — this warrants a deeper look into the situation and possibly some assistance from a professional.
If your child’s style choices have to do with gender nonconformity, this may also signify a need for a bigger discussion. Your child may be expressing to you and others that their assigned gender doesn’t line up with the gender they feel they are. Or they could simply be giving the middle finger to gender constructs. Either way, you as a parent will need to commit to further research into how best to support your child. Shaming your kid or making them feel shitty about their fashion choices just because it doesn’t meet your perceptions of how they’re “supposed” to look is definitely not the way to go. Even if your advice is meant to protect them from others’ judgment, understand that for a kid questioning their gender, this could be incredibly damaging.
The bottom line is, if your kid isn’t displaying worrisome behavioral issues outside of their odd (to you) fashion choices, you’re doing fine. In fact, you can take it as a compliment to your parenting that you’ve apparently fostered an environment in which your child feels free to express themself. In the end, it’s just clothes and hair. We have all messed around with our appearance at one time or another — for some of us our experimentation with fashion has led to intense cringing decades later (‘80s hair, anyone? Yikes).
About a week after that text conversation with my friend, I got a new message from her. It was a picture of her adorable kid rocking a short little flip of shiny, sky blue hair — and looking absolutely thrilled with herself.
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