Mom and Her Amorphous Job Description, or, A Blog Comment on Steroids

When commenting on other bloggers’ posts, I often have the feeling that my comment is better suited to a post-length response on my blog than a comment on theirs. I don’t comment often, and it takes a lot for me to want to comment on a post. But when I do comment, I generally have a lot to say.

I read a post last night about a mom letting her daughters (ages five and three, I think) cut their own hair (Permission Granted | Dandelion Roars). I admit, my gut response was, “Why on earth would you let a child that young cut her own hair?”

Of course, I also have a voice in my head that says, “Why on earth would anyone cut their own hair?” and I know plenty of adults who do just that.

Recognizing my reticence around non-professional cutting of hair, I set my initial impressions aside as I read Sarah’s reasoning for why she let her daughters do it. I ended up seeing her side of it, even as I don’t think I would come to the same conclusion, at least not for the same reasons.

I posted a comment in response, doing my best to make it clear that I don’t disagree with her actions but rather with her reasoning and with her application of her assumptions to the parent-child relationship in general rather than to her relationship with her children in particular.

But it was really, really long, and I realized it really is better suited to a blog post on its own than to a comment. Of course, this was after I’d already posted it and it had been approved to appear on Sarah’s blog. In retrospect, I’d probably have written a much shorter comment and then linked here. But you know what they say about hindsight.

This is my comment as it appears on Dandelion Roars:

This is a tough one. While I believe in promoting my children’s body autonomy, I do think there’s a point at which I as a parent should give my 6yo daughter some guidelines around what she does with her body. Would I let her get her ears pierced? Wear revealing (to my eyes) clothing? Wear makeup? What about what she eats? Whether she wears sun protection when she goes out?

You write, “Do we really know more about them and their bodies than they do? Maybe it’s time parents stepped back and allowed their children enough freedom to discover their own desires and limits.”

I actually do think I know more about her and her body than she does. At the very least, I have a different perspective than she does, and I have a better ability to see the big picture and the long-term ramifications of her actions. I don’t think setting limits tells her that she can’t be trusted with her own decisions about her own body; rather, I think it helps her understand that there’s value in taking some time and consideration, weighing our options and looking at a situation from multiple angles before we choose a course of action. And that sometimes it’s better to defer to someone who has more training (and who can reach the back of our head better than we can).

It’s not about an arbitrary age of consent. It’s about knowing our children and allowing them to make choices as it’s appropriate to their age and abilities. You made the choice that was right for you as the mother of your specific children, but I disagree with the suggestion that, had you not allowed them to cut their own hair, you would be somehow stifling their freedom, or that stifling their freedom would be automatically bad. Parents limit their children’s freedom every day. It’s part of our job, and when applied with love and prudence, it’s healthy and shows our children that we love them and will keep them safe.

Can I envision a scenario in which I might let my daughter cut her own hair? Yes. But it would involve a lot of time, thought, discussion, and encouragement to her to do more research about the process before I’d hand her the scissors. If she asked me, I’d likely say not “yes” or “no,” but “Wait; let’s talk about this.” There are good reasons to either grant or deny her permission to cut her own hair, but it takes time to determine if these apply to the situation at one particular moment.

What I didn’t address in my comment was this paragraph from Sarah’s post:

Should Ella ask permission to cut her hair in the future? Does it really matter? I did tell her we have hair scissors, and if she wanted to cut her hair, she could ask for the proper scissors. But whether to actually cut her hair or not? No, I don’t think it’s my place to either deny or grant permission.

I believe that’s exactly what a parent’s place is. We’re here to provide guidance, and some of that involves making decisions for our children when they lack the developmental age or the experience necessary to make the decisions themselves. It’s up to each parent to decide when their own individual children are ready to make each kind of decision on her own.

I think that there is a difference between arbitrary rules and healthy limit-setting. My children, at least, seem to experience an increase in anxiety when I let go of limits. They find safety and reassurance in structure, and I think it would worry my daughter if I told her to just go ahead and cut her own hair (I know just the look she’d give me. It’s the same one she gives me when I say that it’s fine for her to take the wheelchair ramp while her brother and I take the stairs, even though the ramp is in full view of the stairs and vice versa). And I just don’t think saying no is necessarily deleterious to a child’s emotional development. “Yes” and “no,” and even “maybe” and “I don’t know” and “What do you think?” are important for our children as they grow.

I really enjoyed the thought process that went into responding to Sarah’s post. It helped me to clarify how I view my role as a parent, and how I make decisions and how I encourage my children to make decisions (slowly. Very slowly).

I really would like to have a larger discussion about this, though, as I know you all represent a wide variety of parenting styles and philosophies.

So, what is a parent’s role? Is it part of a parent’s responsibility to help guide her children, even in issues that affect only their own bodies? Or is it important for us to be as hands-off as possible so as to foster their creativity and autonomy from the youngest of ages? Where is the line between healthy limit-setting and arbitrary rules?

18 comments

  1. Pingback: Guest Posting on my own Blog « Imperfect Happiness
  2. mamadandelion · August 31, 2011

    : ) Nope, positive opinion doesn’t matter either. But as the Mama of that little girl, I’m ridiculously proud of the job she did. The only people who’ve mentioned anything to her in person are the ones that see her regularly and ask about her new hair cut. Otherwise no one realizes a little child (age 4, not 6) cut it herself. But when she’s not in earshot I let everyone know she did it.

    She doesn’t like the results, but her initial thought on the matter was “It’ll grow back”. And with positive feedback she says, “It’s not so bad, but it’ll grow back.” In other words it really hasn’t changed her opinion of it. Would negative comments effect her – possibly. Possibly not.

    But if she was upset, then we could figure it out at that point. WIth the length of time it takes for hair to grow back, and the fact that after a new haircut most people only mention it once, I don’t see any reason to be concerned about hurting her self-esteem if the results were less than flattering.

    Sure some people may lie to her and say they like it when they don’t, but that opens dialogue about why someone would do that, as well as how we feel about it. And some may be brutally honest, but she wouldn’t be left to deal with that on her own either.

    I’d like to say there was a lot of thought that went into the decision to let the girls (Age 3 and 4) cut their own hair, but really the extent of our thought process was: It was bound to happen. They’re on the hard (easy clean) floor, I want pictures, and let’s make sure no one loses an ear.

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  3. CathyT · August 31, 2011

    Such a good discussion about permission and learning from experience. Neither my teens nor my younger kids have ever talked about cutting their hair – in fact wwe have gone the other way and “allowed” some of them (all bys) to grow their hair out and perhaps resemble a girl. But that choice came after a lot of talking amongst the grown ups why we have the hang ups we did regarding proper hair length. In the end we said they could have longer hair styles as long as they washed their hair as often as we felt necessary; when the hair was looking ragged we gave them a choice, wash it or get it cut. We now have a compromise, short hair with a tail and some bath days are soak and no soap.

    I read the original blogger’s post though not more entries and I can see whe she is coming from. It seems like she did more discussing and thoughtful thinking before allowing the scissors but I do disagree with letting a 6 year old cut their own hair because of the issues that might ensue that could hurt her self esteem or self confidence over time. If people say they like her haircut and really don’t like it (and she knows they are lying) will she trust others about more important issues? If people give her a hard time will she trust her own judgement about more important issues? I don’t know. Like you siad, hypothetical is always easier than the real deal. Yes, we should let kids make choices and allow them to make poor choices so they learn – I would much rather they learn on their own and learn to trust their guts than to only learn by doing what others say or suggest.

    At some point a parent does need to step out of the way and it is hard – my eldest son is 17 now – but if we parents have helped him to learn how to make decisions, anaylzed why we do things the way we do, and discussed alternatives then stepping back is a bit easier becasue we know that we trust them and they trust themselves…to either live with the consequences or figure out how to change the situation somehow. And maybe because we have had a good dialogue over the years they feel safe and comfortable enough to ask our opinion even as an adult.

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    • CJ · August 31, 2011

      Your point about the reactions from others is an angle I hadn’t considered. It’s easy to say it doesn’t matter what others think, but even the mom in the original post mentions that everyone says they like her daughter’s hair. If opinion doesn’t matter, shouldn’t a positive opinion not matter either? And, like you suggest, are they genuine in their compliments? And if not and she can tell, how does that affect her interest in taking chances in the future. We’re social creatures and acceptance from other humans is, whether we like it or not, important to us. I do wonder what the proper age/level of development might be for a child to be ready to deal with that kind of social disappointment. I fear I’ve not yet reached that age/level of enlightenment.

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  4. timbra · August 31, 2011

    PS, it doesn’t make much sense that they get to do a top 5 list, but there are only 5 place that it seems his job will take them 🙂 the choices are FL, FL, TX, CO and MA. . . and I think they are debating between whether the order is CO, FL, FL or FL, CO, FL. . . he’s a cold weather guy, I think MA would work well for him 🙂

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    • CJ · August 31, 2011

      Well, if they still use the same criteria they used when my dad was in the service, they’ll send him anyplace he’s said he’d rather not go. I’ll be planning to see you all in MA soon. 🙂

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  5. timbra · August 31, 2011

    i know. . . i’ve been enjoying your fun way of telling your life lately and it’s making me miss you being here too. i need a cool nickname like “cj”. . . how about “mct” (uh, that Mc for my maiden name). . . anyway, I tried to persuade my sister for Boston, I think FL is on her list. . . but hey, you could always come visit family, mike loves FL, renee would head out with me at the same time. . . .PARTY!!!

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    • CJ · August 31, 2011

      I think mct would work, but I’d spell it “McT” to clarify the pronunciation. Florida would totally work for us. We really liked escaping winter a bit last year and visiting family. I’m betting we’ll make it a habit.

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  6. timbra · August 29, 2011

    well, “dandelion”. . .permanent markers aren’t actually out of reach, nor are scissors. . . i think it’s just never occurred to my children (so far) to cut their hair with those scissors. And body art. . .HAVE AT IT. . . i even draw ON my children 🙂 Yeah, the response to the “sleeve” (from dad) was “um, they use a needle to poke you over and over in the same spot and it bleeds all over your arm. . . and you can’t do it til your 18” (a funny response if you understood how “square” my husband was when I met him :). I agree to some extent with what’s being said, and CJ, I think you hit the nail on the head, we each need to make those choices for “our family.” Sort of like this non-profit international organization I’m a part of saying “take what works for your family, leave what doesn’t, and be open to what you hear here :)”

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    • CJ · August 29, 2011

      Man, Timbra. I miss you so much! I hope your sister moves out here so you come to visit and I can hang out with you again.

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  7. mamadandelion · August 29, 2011

    Thanks for the track back. : )

    I believe it’s possible to guide children, without either denying or granting permission. And when the possible consequences are insignificant (I view other’s opinion based on appearance as insignificant) then I really won’t step in. We don’t keep the scissors put out of reach, in fact they have access to several different types of scissors so they can better approach the crafts they want to do. The hair scissors are in reach too, they just didn’t realize it. I cut my own hair all the time, I also cut my husbands. So it really wasn’t unexpected that she’d want to too.

    And yes the only markers the girls have free access to are washable, but that really isn’t limiting them. They still have the option to colour as they choose. We even have a space on the walls available for them to colour if that’s where they want to create. Though mostly they use paper. If they want the permanent markers, then yep, we offer guidance on how to use them, but we still allow them to use the markers.

    I agree that children need guidance. However, offering guidance doesn’t mean changing what they want to do, or denying permission based on our perceived greater knowledge. I say perceived because many times what our children are accomplishing isn’t what we think they’re accomplishing. We see a little girl picking up scissors and cutting her hair. She sees all her reasons for doing it. Many times, especially with young children, they can’t express those thoughts in words.

    Many parents also use dressing appropriately for the weather as another way that parents should use their greater knowledge to limit children. I believe that children know their bodies better than we do and as such I won’t tell my girls to wear a coat, or not to wear a snowsuit (in summer). I do bring a coat or change of clothes with us so they can change later. I’ve only needed to do that once or twice. They’ve since figured out how to judge the weather as well s how to choose clothes based no the weather. To me it’s a much faster approach and it allows them full freedom to make their own decisions – with guidance.

    As for a tattoo, I would encourage her to look into it more. After all, IMO it hurts. But to her, it might not hurt. It’s also a lot more permanent than a haircut. But there are other options, besides a permanent tattoo in which she could express herself with body art. I would help her figure out what she actually wanted to express, and find a way to do it.

    It is a great discussion. I think we have the same basic idea – children need guidance. However, our method of offering that guidance is different.

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    • CJ · August 29, 2011

      I agree that it seems like we have the same basic idea. As a matter of fact, I’ve avoided many an outerwear argument by letting my kids go out sans coat in winter or in a faux fur doggy costume in the heat of summer. I just, as you do, bring other options in case they really aren’t comfy in a tank top and shorts in January.

      I really like your point about the differences between what we perceive as our children’s goals in pursuing a course of action and what they see as their goals. It’s important to note the differences in their thinking and our thinking, and respecting the equal value of both. Getting into their heads is a great way to help redirect them, too, if what they’re doing happens to be in the “unsafe” category and we need to help them accomplish their goals in a safer manner.

      One of the ways I use “greater knowledge about their bodies” as a reason for imposing limits is around food. I can’t tolerate gluten or dairy, and my kids have always been sensitive to sugar levels and different types of foods. My daughter and I talk about food choices that help our bodies feel their best. I allow her to mostly choose whatever she wants to eat, and mostly she makes wise choices (as does her 2yo brother). But sometimes if her judgment has been derailed by lack of sleep or too many simple sugars, I’ll move her a little more firmly in one direction than another. She just doesn’t have the global view necessary to know that eating too much of “X” is going to make her feel ill.

      I’m not sure what it is about the hair. I’ve always been really, really nervous about having a bad haircut. Perhaps it’s because my hair is curly and doesn’t allow much room for error without my looking like a mushroom head. Or maybe there’s more to it. If so, however, I’m not going to attempt to explore that here.

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  8. Victoria · August 29, 2011

    My kids, even the little one, are known to say things like, “It’s my body and it’s my choice.” I guess we give them a lot of freedom in this department. They can choose what to wear, they can choose how to fix their hair, to wear temporary tattoos (we did have to scrub a couple off of Ruby before she was the flower girl in her Aunt’s wedding though), to get their ears pierced, to wear face paint, or ridiculous clothes. We draw the line at safety things like PFDs or shoes in certain situations but honestly I’d hand them the hair scissors if they asked.

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    • CJ · August 29, 2011

      I had to giggle…we’re in the middle of a bit of a thing with temporary tattoos right now. We got some at a local wildlife sanctuary and the kids are pretty in love with them right now. It’s interesting, too, to be part of a conversation in which I seem like one of the “stricter” parents, since both sets of grandparents think I let the kids run the house. (In reality, it’s more of a cooperative household…they don’t have more say than we parents have, but they certainly have significant voting power.)

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  9. timbra · August 29, 2011

    so. . .based on these ideas, I should go ahead and let Alani get that tattoo (the one that renee has) which she expressed wanting last week? 🙂 I think there are some things that are more important to guide children in, than others. . . to each parent/child relationship, and that each parent kind of decides what that is. I know that there’s shock over things that I just don’t think matter, in the eyes of others, and vice versa. . .I agree that my 5yo doesn’t have a lot of “big picture” thinking 🙂 That is obvious just in throwing a ball around the house or whipping a jump rope about, there’s little thought on how that might cause a bigger problem, it’s all about the fun in the moment, not the drink being spilled, the TV busting, the sister getting her face whipped. . . I have to set limits, otherwise, I just see everything unfold that I KNOW will happen (and I don’t want to replace the TV:)

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    • CJ · August 29, 2011

      I think she would look totally cute with a tattoo sleeve, Timbra. So what if it would fade beyond all recognition by the time she’s 20 (what would happen as she grew? Would it get all stretched out with her skin, or would it stay tiny as her arm got bigger?). I’m thinking, too, that we’re setting limits just by keeping scissors and permanent markers out of reach (we think).

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  10. Melanie Meadors · August 29, 2011

    Taking a break from picking up sticks ;)–I wanted to say I agree with you. Yes, there are times when you should let go a little, give a little on the control, etc. But kids have parents for a reason… We are supposed to provide guidance, and kids need limits on some things to keep them safe both physically and emotionally. Cutting hair is something I think worthy of discussion, at least. The thing that concerns me is that if a child doesn’t feel that she has to ask permission or whatever for one thing, she won’t feel the need for it at other times (kids are kids!)when there might be danger involved that she hadn’t thought of… Kids must learn to be independent, but there is a time and place for everything. THe other thing to think about, even though it is not the most important of things, is that in our society, people look at the parents as being responsible for the kids. When they see a very young kid who has dressed himself in mismatching, dirty clothes, who cut his own hair, etc, they will look to the parents as the cause. Mind you, my son being on the autism spectrum, I really WISH he would take more initiative for himself (that wasn’t solely because of lack of impulse control!). There is just a line, like there is with most things, and there is also a huge gray area around the line. Each kid is different, is growing up in a different situation, etc.

    As far as their bodies are concerned… again, a four year old does NOT know their body better than we do as parents. They don’t always know what is best for them. You can discuss things with them, give them options, listen to their opinions, and not be tyrannical with them, but really, I don’t think kids should just be allowed to do whatever they want (until they are old enough to take the consequences themselves).

    LOL what were you saying about comments? Haha and yours is one of the only blogs I visit regularly. Good thing…

    Time for more sticks…Love windy weather in our neighborhood. No trees are down that we can see, though!

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    • CJ · August 29, 2011

      One of the other comments on the original blog post talks about putting too much of an emphasis on what other people think if we put too many restrictions on how our children look. You touch on it in your comment, also. This is a sticky one for me, too. While I don’t want my children second-guessing themselves about their appearance based on what others might think, it is a reality of life that we’re going to be perceived differently depending on how we look. And as parents, we’re going to be perceived differently based on how our children look/dress/act, whether that’s fair or right or not. Because this is the way things are, unless we plan on avoiding all other human contact (tempting as that might be sometimes, it’s fairly impractical for most of us), we need to at least take public opinion into account before we leave the house.

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