Back to school

Hairy situations: When kids and parents battle over 'dos

Sep. 5, 2013 at 8:03 AM ET

Ainsley Thornton’s hair is blue and purple. Before you make any rash judgments, know that this dye job was her idea, and her mother, Tracee Sioux, was skeptical albeit supportive.

long hair
Courtesy Tracee Sioux
Ainsley Thornton, 11, dyed her hair blue and purple for her first day of school.

“She wanted to dye it for her first day of middle school,” says Sioux, a law of attraction life coach who lives in Fort Collins, Colo., with her daughter Ainsley, 11, and son Zach, 7. 

“I talked with her about whether she was sure she wanted to do it, but at the end of the day, I feel like hair is a safe place to let her experiment.”

Sioux has always adopted an open-minded and supportive approach to her daughter’s looks, although that doesn’t mean she has always agreed with her daughter’s choices.

“When Ainsley was 4, she wanted to cut her long, girlish curls into a short bob. We dropped her off at my mother-in-law’s house and mentioned Ainsley’s wish for a haircut. Sure enough, Ainsley came home with a terrible, short haircut, I wouldn’t even have called it a bob. My husband at the time was livid, he had to leave the house when he saw her. To him, she had looked so sweet and beautiful and girly, and now her long hair was replaced with just a really bad haircut.”

Hair cutting has often been a battle of wills between a parent and child. A mother might want to cut her daughter’s long hair to avoid the daily battle of brushing through tangles. Or a son might want to chop his perfectly tailored ‘do into a mohawk. One mother wrote a blog post admitting that she doesn’t brush her children’s hair because she believes it’s against their will and comparable to assault.

Sioux understands the controversy, but also feels that a mother’s unwillingness to let her child manage her own hair might be a more deeply-seated issue.

“I think it’s a control issue. Does my child belong to me or to herself?”

Dr. Jane Nelsen, author of the “Positive Discipline” series, says that frequently a parent’s ego gets in the way of a helping a child develop their own identity.

“Children are always trying to figure out who they are separate from their parents, it’s a process called individuation,” says Nelsen. “Kids need to experiment, and instead of trying to get your child to look a certain way for yourself or for your neighbor, it’s your job as a parent to help your child figure out who they are through teaching and problem solving skills.”

family
Courtesy Tracee Sioux
Tracee Sioux and her children, Ainsley and Zach Thornton.

If you’re truly opposed to your child’s wish for a particular haircut, Nelsen suggests asking curiosity questions -- probing your child on why they want their hair a specific way. Questions like, “Why do you want to cut your hair? How will it make you feel? Why do you want your hair longer or shorter?” will help your child think and come to their own conclusion.

“Don’t lecture your kids, but help them explore,” says Nelsen. “If my daughter wanted to dye her hair green, I would want to know what it means to her. I can tell her that I personally don’t like green hair but what I’m really trying to find out is why having green hair is so important to her.”

For many parents, like Sioux, cutting a child’s hair also symbolizes a sense of loss. When her son’s curls were cut at 2 years old, Sioux admittedly felt sad.

“Think about it,” she says, ”you probably touch your baby’s hair 100 times a day. It’s such an intimate gesture, to touch, smell, kiss your child’s hair. Everybody has hair but it’s such a unique thing to your child, so sometimes it’s sad to see it go.”

But for Sioux, at the end of the day, her children’s hair is really just hair, and one of the safer places for her kids to explore their individuality.

“Who our kids are today are NOT who they will be forever,” says Nelsen. “We forget these things. They are growing and individuating, and we need to have faith in our children’s sense of style and be confident that they’ll learn from their mistakes. And remember, just because a child’s choice on a haircut isn’t our personal favorite doesn’t mean it’s actually a mistake.”

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