By Susan M. Chilvers, Ed.D.
As teachers and parents most of us wonder if we are doing a good job raising/educating children. As parents we juggle the concept of unconditional love with a desire to be a good role model and boundary setter. In the classroom, we question practices that allow exploration and individual development in the context of personal challenge and accountability. How many times do we ask the questions — Is this appropriate? Is this acceptable? What will others think? — when our children do something that is somewhat outlandish, provocative, challenging and probably to them great fun! I am not talking about potentially harmful games such as playing with fire, playing chicken on the road or experimenting with substances, I am talking about dressing and ornamentation of their own bodies. Children love to play dress up with every type of clothing and accessories, particularly experimenting with different gender roles. Nail polish for both boys and girls (often the more outrageous the better) is fun to wear and see people’s reactions, hair dying, piercings, tattoos, temporary and real, are all self-expressions that can horrify parents and teachers — not to mention more conservative relatives! (I deliberately did not say elderly relatives as grandparents are often very understanding of and amused by their grandchildren and will share stories of their “wild youth.”) But in the end children should be their own people and our job as parents and educators is to guide and nurture, not try to make them into our idea of what they should be. Not saying “no” to harmless activities such as those I have mentioned but giving guidance with more serious steps such as piercing and tattoos. Setting an age for deciding on something more permanent and sharing information on healthy maintenance of piercings and longevity of tattoos in my experience is more likely to create a useful dialogue between adult and child. Body ornamentation is as old as mankind and will manifest itself in some way in children and adolescents and the way their choices are handled will definitely affect relationships. In many ways boys are allowed less freedom than girls in this area, which is sad. It represses their natural inclination to explore and experiment and it sends a message of intolerance from their adult role models that will be emulated by them among their peers.
I’d like to say from my 45 years of teaching experience and 36 years of mothering, don’t worry about what colors they paint their nails or dye their hair and clothes they dress up in while growing up — it’s all part of having fun, finding out what they enjoy and others enjoy and learning to be tolerant of differences. If parents say no to “crazy” but harmless experiments just because we are parents, we might not raise children who dialog with us and share their ideas, fun and fears and actually listen to advice about real dangers.