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A Permanent Problem


That she would ask this question one day was inevitable. I had been waiting quite some time for it, but had felt that it was probably still a few years away. Whether sooner or later though, that it would be asked was pre-ordained more than eleven years ago, the day I found out that our yet-to-be-born child was an 'XX' type ... "Dad, can I get a 'perm'?"

Himi is currently an elementary school student, in grade five. It may be that getting a permanent is a current fad among her age group, or perhaps it is her own idea. She and her nine year old sister do seem to have a lot of interest in their hair-styles, and I think this is readily explained by the fact that as they are still too young to be involved with make-up, and as they don't really have a large selection of clothes from which to choose, 'doing' their hair is thus about the only form of physical self-expression they have available to them. One day it's a ponytail, the next it's braids, and then the next day it's something else entirely. There seems no end to the permutations, and they have amassed a large basketful of accessories to assist with the job: ribbons, elastics, pins, clips, and dozens of other odds and ends for fastening and decorating hair.

Realizing the personal nature of this morning chore of theirs (and not only mornings), I try to keep pretty much out of their way in this matter. My job these days is simply to offer opinions when asked. "Yes, that looks fine." "Sure, that's OK." "Mmmm, nice job!" Occasionally when things get a bit out of hand, when somebody simply can't decide what style is suitable, and school-time is drawing closer ... then I reluctantly get involved, 'suggesting' a resolution to the dilemma, perhaps say, Option 'A'. This is inevitably rejected, and they suddenly find that Option 'B' is the only way to go ... but at least they do then get off to school on time.

In all fairness though, I must admit that this 'hands off' attitude of mine is a fairly recent state of affairs. From the time they were born, right up until they were nine and seven respectively, they never had their hair cut, as I had very much enjoyed having two daughters who looked so 'cute', with beautiful silky long hair cascading down their back. It was very long indeed, right down to their waists, and was a lot of trouble to take care of. But I didn't complain, and along with their mother, I took my turn shampooing, drying, and brushing it. We must have spent endless hours caring for their hair, but to my mind, it was worth it. They looked absolutely beautiful. I couldn't wait until they became tall and elegant young women, each with a stunning waterfall of hair ...

But of course you all know what came next. As they grew bit by bit, and as their own personalities developed, so did their desire to try something different. They wanted to cut their hair. I dug in my heels and refused. My justification was simple, "You're too young to be able to make decisions like this for yourself. If you cut it, tomorrow you'll just be crying because you made a mistake. You can do what you want with your own hair later ..." Just when was 'later'? As far as I was concerned, it meant basically never, but at some point we had to quantify this, and we established that, "When you become middle school students, you can decide things like hair-styles for yourself, but until then, 'Father knows best.'"

But the two girls haven't been the only ones 'growing up'. During the years that they have been developing, I too have changed. Having kids has been quite a learning experience for me, and many of the ideas and attitudes with which I started out have been altered or discarded along the way. (Did I say 'many'? How about 'all'!) Perhaps the biggest of these was my perception of a family as an organization similar to a business, with a 'boss' at the top (or 'bosses'), and then a bunch of people lower down, who followed orders and did as they were told. I don't mean a kind of Victorian super-strictness, but simply that the demarcation of authority was clear, and absolute. Decisions were made on a 'top down' basis. My way of thinking was perhaps also influenced to some degree by the fact that during the years my children were being born, I was employed as manager of a business, with considerable authority over, and responsibility for, a number of employees. Dozens of times a day, they would come to me for advice or direction. "Dave, how should I handle this?" "Dave, what do we do here ...?" etc., etc. I snapped out decisions right and left, day after day. Second only to the owner of the company, I was the 'decision man'. So I make no apology for carrying this attitude over into my family life. And I don't think I was particularly unusual in doing that ...

But as I said, I've been learning lessons from my kids, and have come to realize that imposition of absolute authority over family matters by a parent is misguided. Although it may be a good system for organizations such as the military, where people are rigidly 'pegged' into place, and where obedience is a fundamental requirement of the structure, if this pattern is applied rigourously to a family, it breeds over-dependence, lack of ability to think for oneself, and general resentment all around.

I should make it clear before I go any further, that I'm not recommending that children be allowed to do anything they want. Young kids are not adults, have a very un-developed grasp of such concepts as responsibility and consequences, and do need firm guidance. But there is obviously a long sliding scale - from the newborn baby who requires all decisions to be taken by the parent, right up to that young adult just leaving the nest, who needs only words of advice (impartial, and on request only). It is the parent's job to walk along this 'slope', trying to strike the right balance between control and guidance.

So getting back to the hair story ... a couple of years ago, when their mother was visiting from Canada for the summer, and the three of them pestered me about cutting their hair, I finally admitted that a father had no business dictating such things as the length of his daughters' hair, and turned it over to them, to act as they saw fit. Of course, they both went for a haircut right away, and when they came home from the beauty shop that afternoon, proud of their new 'short cuts', I congratulated them on their fresh new appearance. And it was true. They looked great! And there were neither tears nor recriminations ...

Since that time, I have really tried to be conscious of not imposing my own desires on them, and have tried to let them make as many decisions for themselves as possible. Sometimes they go too far, and act irresponsibly; eating too many afternoon snacks, skipping some important school homework, or staying up too late; but they are gradually learning that each time they do something like this, there is inevitably a price exacted - either a stomach-ache, an angry teacher, or being late for school the next morning. They certainly make mistakes, but overall, I think they are not doing so badly ... And because they know that I do not impose arbitrary rules and orders, they are generally willing to follow my directions when necessary.

We are now entering the minefield of their teen years, a time of life when most of us try and rebel to some degree against the authority and rules that surround us. I don't have too many illusions about this, and fully expect that we will have our share of battles, but I would like to think that we can avoid a great many of the more trivial reasons for parent/teen friction. Like perms, for example.

I will express no preference either way on this one, and it will be up to her to choose. If she is willing to make the necessary investment, I will support her choice (we usually go 50/50 on the cost of such things, kids paying their share out of the allowance I pay them for the considerable amount of housework they do). There will remain only one obstacle. Although her father is trying not to 'dominate' all her decision making, she must also consider the viewpoint of that other important institution in her life, and I rather suspect that they may have something to say about this one ...