What My Son’s Hair Taught Me About Parenting

Are we doing what’s best for our child or are we doing things that will make us look and feel like the best parents?

In India, a child’s first haircut is ceremoniously cut during his first or third year. Hindus believe hair represents unwanted traits from past lives. Traditionally, during Mundan Sanskar, a priest is called to bless the child while a barber shaves his head giving the child a fresh start (as well as the added bonus of increased blood flow to the brain).

In China, a child’s first haircut often takes place when he is one month old. The child’s hair is considered good luck and while some modern Chinese parents skip a full shave, most still cut some hair at this time. They tie the strands with a red string and keep it to tuck under the child’s pillow to soothe them, save it for continued prosperity or, if they opt to shave the entire head, make a special calligraphy brush to convey wishes of health, wisdom, and happiness.

Mongolian children get their first cut between the ages of 2 and 6. The large celebration includes family members and guests who cut a strand of hair and say wishes for the child. The haircut symbolizes the transition from infancy to childhood; a transition many babies don’t make.

In America, there is no custom. No tradition. No specific belief about a child’s hair. We cut our children’s hair whenever. There is often some recognition of their first (as there is for all our children’s’ firsts). Some weigh the event heavily, saving a lock of hair (simply to remember), while others may note it in a baby book and quietly move on.

Still others, like me, try to ignore it—feeling like there is some weighty significance without the traditional custom to validate it.

My 5.5-year-old son has had the same haircut since he was a toddler. It’s long, straight, fairly thick, and has been getting darker with each passing year. When the front starts to fall into his eyes, I trim it, just enough so he can see unobstructed for a couple more weeks. I trim the sides to avoid a mullet. The result: Dorothy Hamill.

I look at pictures of him as a 2-year-old with his ‘70s cut and love that I kept it long. His hair was whisper thin and blond. His bowl cut has become part of his identity. It suits him. I vow not to change it. Part of me believes this is because it’s cute. But perhaps, subconsciously, I’ve been believing that if I just keep trimming, I can trim back time.

I’ve had very long hair and very short hair. I am a firm believer of “It’s just hair. It’ll grow back.” It feels both significant and insignificant. It is both the literal crown you present to the world, but also entirely unnecessary—an accessory that some of us do without.

My mother kept hair from my first cut. It sits in an envelope somewhere. When I was younger I used to like to take it out. I knew it was once mine, but I always felt detached from it. Perhaps that’s exactly why I used to like to hold it, to try to feel a connection to something my mother valued enough to keep. I don’t remember how old I was when the locks were cut but I’m sure my mom does.

As parents, we like to believe that the art we save, the hand prints we frame, the scrapbooks we keep, are for our kids. But they mean more to us.

I see the traditions and rituals of other cultures and wish we had our own.

As my son struggles to see through bangs that hang too long, I’ve struggled to see that keeping his hair the same is a futile attempt at control. A ridiculous attempt to delay the inevitable. Time will keep passing. My son will keep growing.

He insists on growing out of his clothes, his shoes, Daniel Tiger, but I would not let him grow out of his haircut.

Until he did.

My son’s hair suits him because it’s the only cut he’s ever had. Would a ritualistic first cut have forced me to see that keeping his hair the same would not stop time? Maybe. A closet truth is that I’m drawn to the customs and traditions of other cultures because they are a reminder that it’s not about me. It’s about him. It’s his hair.

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the decline of American parenting from the helicopter types, to the enablers, to those who let the kids take charge. Most of the problem stems from shifting our focus from our kids to ourselves. How will our kids’ actions make us look? Would doing X activity make us happy? Would a Harvard acceptance fulfill us with a sense of success? Are we doing what’s best for our child or are we doing things that will make us look and feel like the best parents?

The traditions and customs of other cultures are about the child, not about how the parents feel about the passage of time. It’s a celebration of the child’s life.

I’m reminded that my son is not really mine to control and manipulate but rather mine to keep. He’s mine to keep loving when he makes mistakes. Mine to let fall and then keep helping him up. Mine to watch try and try again, and keep cheering on from the sideline.

Our children will always be ours and we will always be theirs. But rather than tethering us to one another—weighing us down with obligation and guilt—it should set us free.

My job is not just to trim as I see fit. My job is to let him grow and give him a clear, comfortable view of the limitless sky above.

Kathleen Siddell is a writer living in Singapore with her husband and 2 boys. You can find her on The Washington PostHuffington Post, Scary Mommy and elsewhere or laugh at her lack of social media savvy on Twitter.

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