Blue Hair, Nose Rings, and What Really Matters
They were engaged in animated conversation, laughing often, and clearly enjoying each other's company. They staged a mock fight with their chopsticks for a contested egg roll. A mother and her teenage son were feasting on the mid-week Chinese buffet special at Mandarin Garden. I assumed that they had come directly from the son's soccer game, since he was still wearing his grass-stained uniform and cleats, like many other soccer kids dotting the restaurant.
They garnered their fair share of rubbernecked and discreet stares because of the teenager's hair. It was blue. A soft, sky-blue. And there wasn't much of it. His head was shaved, with the exception of a four-inch strip of blue hair that began at his forehead and ended at the nape of his neck.
The buffet was mediocre that evening, but that didn't seem to bother this mother and her blue-haired boy. They were having a good time together.
I encountered another family -- father, mother, and son -- in the produce aisle of my local supermarket. The son pushed the shopping cart and they walked closely together. They were joking about moving to California to escape the high cost of New England's imported winter fruits and vegetables. There was an ease and comfort in the rhythm and tone of their discussion. And there was something rather startling that distinguished the young adult son -- he had more facial body piercings than any person I had ever seen.
I will admit to lingering by them at the Granny Smith apples to tally up the number of piercings. Eyebrows, cheeks, nose, bottom and upper lips, ears...and maybe even a pierced tongue. Ten facial piercings, 18 if you count the ears...and 19 if I was right about the tongue.
Times may change, but life's passages do not. My teen and college years were spent in the '60's. I wore my hair long in high school and cut it in college only when it would cause my mother to become physically ill. I did surprise and delight her on a few occasions, when I came home for Christmas break looking like a freshly shorn choirboy. "You look so handsome. That's my boy!" she'd beam. "What happened to Bob Dylan?" my father would ask. Dad pronounced my bushy-haired folk hero's name, DIE-lan.
Blue hair, piercings, and tattoos were not in style when I was a teenager. Back then, nothing said rebellion like your hair. My mom and dad teased me about my hair from time to time. But we too went to restaurants together and shopped in public as a threesome, no matter how I looked -- mom, dad, and Bob DIE-lan. I'd like to think that we looked as comfortable together as the mom with her blue-haired teen and the parents with their multi-pierced son.
Those two sons and I had parents who never let how we looked diminish how much they loved us or wished to be with us... anytime, anywhere. Our parents knew what really mattered. So did we.
When Accepting Their Self-Expression Doesn't Come Easy
Expressing independence through clothes, hair, and accessories is an important part of the adolescent maturation process. It can take many years of experimentation and self-examination for a teen to figure out who he is. During this time, it's essential for parents to be supportive.
So, does this mean if you have trouble accepting your teen's new "look," you don't care about him? If you cringe at the thought of your purple-haired daughter smiling out from the family portrait for all posterity, are you a bad parent? Of course not! In fact, behind each of the happy scenarios described above, there was probably at least some friction before parents and teens were able to see eye to eye, or at least call a truce. While it's a rite of passage for teens to put their individuality on display, parents often go through a simultaneous "rite of passage" -- grieving for the child that was.
The struggles and apparent loss of closeness during these years can be heartbreaking for parents (and teens, too!). Let's face it, it's not always easy to see our babies presenting themselves to the world in (what we consider) less than their best light. On top of that, nowadays, it's not just a temporary appearance issue. Tattoos are basically permanent, and piercing can result in scars and lead to infections. So how do we control our feelings of fear and disappointment so we don't squelch our kids' self-esteem and emerging independence?
Here are some suggestions:
Be patient and have faith. It may be hard to believe, but parents have a great deal of influence on their teens. After having time and space to grow up and explore, teens almost always re-establish a close bond with their parents.
Don't take it personally. They are not doing it to hurt you. This is an important part of their self-exploration: It's all about them!
Let them learn their own lessons. In general, a discovery has more impact when someone makes it by himself than when it is pointed out to him (although it may take longer!)
Choose your battles. Of all the things you may disagree about, is this worth starting World War III over?
Your support means a lot. They don't expect you to approve when they dress outrageously. Surprise them for a change. You don't have to wholeheartedly approve of the look, but you can admire the spirit behind it. They will remember that.
Look for the good. Even if you hate your daughter's hairstyle or choice of clothes, keep mum about it and find things you do like. Compliment her daily. It will boost her self-esteem and maybe even speed up her journey to self-discovery.
Don't forget payback! This is the best one: When your teen's piercings, tattoos, or dreadlocks are about to drive you nuts, close your eyes and imagine what forms of self-expression will make these seem tame a generation from now, when he's a parent!
Read Carleton Kendrick's bio.