Recently one of my friends polled all the other parents she knew: how terrible a parent would she be, she wondered, if she let her six year old get the mullet she was longing for?
I won’t keep you in suspense: It was about a 70/30 split, with most parents saying are you crazy, and only a few saying, you’d be an excellent parent, let her have the hair she wants.
My daughter was seven, I think, when she wanted purple hair. I found a shop that would do it, and for the next few years, she had purple hair. It horrified some people; others thought it was cool. Kids in the Wal-Mart were especially entranced. “Hey! Hey!” they would shout. “That boy has purple hair!”
My kid also tended to dress in jeans, dinosaur shirts, and high-tops, instead of the lacy dresses common to girls here in Arkansas. Hence the gender confusion.
My husband, Dr. Skull as we call him, was not (at first) entirely on board with the purple hair. He was not (at first) entirely on board with the dinosaur shirts, either. We had a semi-serious fight over that one on the eve of the kid’s school pictures, when she wanted to wear her beloved dinosaur shirt, and he wanted her to wear a pretty dress.
Since the kid had been choosing her own clothing at that point for a couple of years, this fight astounded her. “But it’s my favorite shirt,” she said. “I want to wear my favorite shirt in the picture.”
“I want you to look nice in the picture,” Dr. Skull said.
“But it’s my picture.” She appealed to me. “And it’s my body.” (Yes, even at six! I raised her right.)
“She’s got a point,” I said.
“Oh, come on.” Dr. Skull was exasperated. “One picture. It won’t kill her!”
“No, it’s important. You’re telling her she has to look a certain way to make you happy. That’s just not right. You know it isn’t. It’s her body, it’s her decision.”
This, essentially, has always been our rule. She can cut her hair to please herself. She can wear the clothes she wants to wear. It’s her decision. When she was nine and wanted to go to school in midwinter without a coat, I did reason with her – but the ultimate decision was hers; as were the consequences.
This also tended to exasperate Dr. Skull, by the way. “You can’t let her go to school without a coat! It’s winter!”
“Yep,” I said. “And she’ll get cold. And then what?”
He said a bad word at me.
“Then she’ll learn not to go to school without a coat,” I told him. We were parked in the school parking lot watching her march toward the door in her sweatshirt. (Arkansas winters are mild, so don’t feel too anxious.) It was a grey and windy day, and she was at her most frail period – that stage they go through when they are all long legs and no body fat. Very Oliver Twist.
Dr. Skull growled at me. “We should go home and get her coat.”
“She can’t learn from experience if you don’t let her have experience,” I said, which was something I had been saying to him since she was two and started climbing things. (“She’ll fall!” “Yep. And then maybe she’ll learn to be more careful? Or a better climber?”)
Now she is fifteen and making decisions about whether to wear make-up or shave her legs or get a tattoo. These are her decisions, because it’s her body. This is not to say that I don’t provide advice. In fact, my kid and I have evolved a code word for when she wants me to stop advising now please: she can say moo whenever she wants, and I have to stop talking. Kind of a safe word to get Mom to shut her yap.
I do understand the urge to control our kids’ lives. Believe me. If we keep them from climbing, they will never fall. If we choose their clothing, they will always dress right. If we forbid tattoos, they won’t end up with a giant Anarchy symbol on their cheekbone and be forever unemployable.
But the thing is, they’re not going to be seven years old forever. Or fifteen years old either.
Soon they’ll be making decisions about things much more serious than dinosaur shirts and purple hair. They had better know how to make those decisions. And the day they make those decisions had better not be the day they start getting experience.
(Photo by Mark Burgh)