Tips on handling this and other tricky parenting dilemmas
By Nancy Kennedy
When my daughter Laura walks into church—or anywhere, for that matter—heads definitely turn. At 16, she's into wearing black: black fingernail polish, long black skirts, clunky black boots, black stockings, black shirts. If it's cold outside, a black sweatshirt. Her accessories are simple: a ring on every finger, a choker around her neck made of miniature handcuffs, assorted rings in her ears … and a diamond stud in her nose. For variety, she pairs a purple Willy Wonka T-shirt with whatever pants or skirt she happens to step on in her closet. When she's "retro," her footwear of choice is orange suede sneakers. A Crayola Crayon backpack, triangle bandana, and a pair of '50s-style sunglasses complete the outfit.
The best thing I can say about this incarnation of my daughter is that at least she's out of her grunge phase with t-shirts down to her knees, khaki pants big enough for three sumo wrestlers, and two-toned hair. She'd wanted one of the tones to be blue, but after much discussion, she compromised with blond stripes in her dark brown hair. She looked like a skunk, but at least it wasn't blue.
The first time she wore her new look to church, several older ladies took me aside. I froze, terrified at what they might say. One of them patted my arm and told me, "Don't worry, honey. It could be worse." I took great comfort in those words.
It's hard, isn't it? One day you're presented with a naked newborn and for the next 10 years or so you get to dress her however you like. I always loved putting Laura in dresses with big white collars and puffy sleeves. That's part of the fun of being a mom. But then your child grows up and exerts her individuality by dressing like everyone else her age. You have conversations in which she yells, "People have a right to be who they are!" To which you answer, "I agree, but why do you have to be who you are dressed like that?!"
The ground shifts, the rules change. As a parent you don't know what to do, how to respond. You start to question your parenting and worry that something you did or didn't do caused your teen to want cat's eyes contact lenses. You start thinking about the spiritual implications and question your heart as you face issues you'd rather not explore: If my child's appearance doesn't fit the standards of normalcy in my circle, will that hurt my image as a "good parent"?
On a deeper level lies the question of your child's spiritual condition. If that's the case, you wonder what—if anything—you can do about it. Besides, you really, really hate those raggy hemmed jeans!
Today's Blue Hair = Yesterday's Hippie Vests
When I was 14, I wore brown velveteen bell bottoms (which I never, ever laundered), a baby-doll dress as a top, and clunky-heeled red patent leather shoes. I teased my hair until it stood on end, wore purple eyeliner, purple mascara, and white lipstick. I'm fairly certain I looked ridiculous, but it's that memory of myself as a teen that gives me perspective when dealing with my daughter. For the most part, Laura's choice of clothing is a generational thing. Her wanting blue hair isn't that different from my wanting to wear go-go boots.
Betty, a mom of four in Ohio, says she and her husband try not to laugh at their kids' outlandish outfits, although at times it's challenging. She recalls one Sunday morning when her daughter came downstairs for church dressed in a lavender sundress, cut-off black tights, brown huarache sandals, a navy bandana tied around her upper arm, and a tiny braid that ran down her face in front of one eye and past her chin. "I couldn't help myself," she says. "I took one look and burst out laughing, causing her to flounce out to the car in a huff."
Betty offers this advice: "If it's merely ugly or a style we don't care for, my husband and I overlook it, although we may let them know how we feel about it. I even learned to buy clothing for the oldest one by choosing the item I hate most. That usually means it's a hit!"
Choose Your Battles Wisely
From Dr. Dobson on down, parenting experts seem to agree on one piece of wisdom: Choose your battles wisely. If it's only a matter of taste, let it go. It's not worth alienating your teen, especially if your relationship's already tenuous. Still, every parent needs to set boundaries, which vary with each family. In our family we draw the line at anything sexually provocative (which, thankfully, hasn't been a problem), morally or spiritually offensive, or irreversible, such as tattoos.
In dealing with Laura, we've discovered an automatic "no" only makes her more determined to fight. Instead, we sit down for a reasoned discussion of all the pros and cons. We agreed to the nose piercing because it's such a tiny diamond chip and fits her exotic features. But we draw the line at eyebrow, tongue, or lips. To me, those are worth a battle because of the health risks involved. Another area we consider worth a battle is how and where she entertains her boyfriend.
But "WWPT (What Will People Think?)"
One of the biggest issues I grapple with is what people think of me as Laura's mother. It hits to the core of my self-image and reveals my own self-absorption. What will people think? Truthfully? Probably the worst. Probably that I'm a terrible mother and that my child's a hellion. People tend to think what they like, and some like to think the worst about other people.
Last summer I took Laura with me to a Christian conference. As we walked among a few thousand Christians, I be came acutely aware of several things: first, that my "Goth princess" daughter attracted obvious attention; second, that most of the stares were laced with judgmental disgust; third, that she was my kid—and I was ecstatic that she wanted to be there with me. Those moments are rare these days.
"It's as if these kids are asking, 'Does God really love me as I am?'" a mom of a boy who's into wearing chains and studs told me recently. "What a shame if we turn them away from God with our outrage and disapproval over something as insignificant as clothing or jewelry!" To be honest, I wasn't surprised at the reaction my daughter received, but I was angered that people who profess to love Christ would look down their noses at someone who didn't meet their standard for appearance.
It was all I could do to keep from yelling, "You don't know her! You just assume she must be on drugs or into witchcraft. But what if she were? Wouldn't that mean she needs to be shown Christ's compassion even more?" The one thing that kept me from "losing it" was knowing I was judging them for their judgmentalism. I was feeling spiritually smug about my willingness to embrace oddly dressed teens such as my daughter.
We have a small Bible church in our community that's attracting the strangest-looking teens to the Wednesday night youth group. Their pastor's wife leads it. While some of the older church members comment about "riff-raff tarnishing our church's image," the pastor and his wife remain firm in their conviction to show the love of Jesus to these lost souls. As a result, they're discovering these kids are opening themselves to the gospel, finding salvation, and bringing their friends. As God changes hearts, he's changing appearances as well. Imagine what would happen if the pastor and his wife listened to the people who wanted to ban these kids from their church!
The Heart of the Matter The bottom line is the state of the heart, not the color of the hair, as Dennis Rainey points out in his book, Parenting Today's Adolescent. He reminds parents that "The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7). Rainey says a parent's ultimate goal is to help our teens understand that how we present ourselves reflects our core values, and whether we're seeking attention for ourselves or for Christ.
Louise, a New Jersey mother of three sons, told me recently, "My major concern is that my kids' faith is strong, their fellowship is with other believers, and that they dress as they really want to, not just to follow the crowd." Her boys have gone through the grunge, "ska," and dyed-hair stages. She added, "How kids dress often determines who their friends are. I want my kids' close friends to be believers, but I also want them to be able to relate to 'fringe' teens and unbelievers so they can be a light to the world. They can't do that very effectively if they look too churchy."
That's one of the reasons I allow Laura the freedom to dress as she does. Because I accept the motley parade of kids who come to my front door, they're often open to my invitations to church. Some have even come with us.
When it comes to the heart of the matter, sometimes appearance reflects an inner rebellion or a spiritual problem.
Sadly, that's true with my daughter, and for her I pray, pray, pray. I pray for her heart to change and for mine to change as well. I keep remembering Valentine's Day 1987, when Laura announced she'd given her life to Jesus. Her rationalization for her appearance today? "Becoming a Christian when you're little gyps you out of a testimony," she says. While her reasoning's far from reasonable, I trust God will steer her back.
In dealing with Laura, I've been forced to "be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power" (Ephesians 6:10). With God's strength I've thrown out spiritually offensive t-shirts, CDs, and posters. As I pray daily, God answers. He changes me, and he's changing my child as well.
Lately Laura's appearance has softened. She's even talking about changing her hair color to red—and she bought two white shirts the other day!
Louise's college son, JC, recently gave up coloring his hair. He said he felt bad spending money on something that stupid when a kid in the dorm could only afford two meals a day. So now instead of buying hair coloring, JC buys bagels and eats breakfast with his neighbor. There's hope!
This Too Shall Pass
In the grand scheme of things, our parenting time is short—it only seems like an eternity. But just as babies outgrow diapers and toddlers learn to walk, teens who want blue hair grow up to get jobs and start families of their own—most of them adapting to socially acceptable standards of appearance along the way. After all, we did. When my daughter gets to that place, what I want most is for her to look back at this stage as a time of grace. A time when her mother loved her enough to stand firm when it meant protecting her soul, yet flexible when it came to the discovery of her individuality. The hole in Laura's nose will eventually close. But our relationship is something I always want to remain open.
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