Are we protecting our kids from the right things?

Guest post by Amanda
Are spacemen ok? I'm thinking yes. Photo by Georgia Peach
Are spacemen ok? I’m thinking yes. Photo by Georgia Peach

I read an article a little while ago about a woman who received criticism for allowing her six-year-old daughter to choose colorful, outlandish outfits to wear in public, even to school. Her clothing choices weren’t inappropriate in any way. They didn’t restrict movement or break any societal rules. She picked things like rainbow knee socks and fluffy tutus. People told the mom, “You’re making things hard on her by encouraging her to stand out.” and “It’s your job to do everything you can to protect her from being ridiculed.”

This happens a lot during a young person’s life.

Those things, for the most part, aren’t forbidden out of a sense of animosity. Parents don’t want their kids to make unpopular choices out of a feeling of love. And also, mostly, a feeling of fear. We love our kids and we want to protect them. We’re actually required to protect them. It’s part of our job as parents. However, we have the equally important job of deciding what to protect our children from.

All too often, we push our fears and limitations onto our children in the name of protecting them. When your daughter decides she wants to wear rainbow toe socks and a tutu to the playground, there’s no actual danger involved in letting her do those things. You might be afraid that other parents will look at you funny, or that another child might question your daughter’s choices. I mean, so what?

When your eighth grader decides she wants blue hair, or that she suddenly identifies with a music and fashion scene that seems strange to you, why are you really discouraging it? What are you afraid is going to happen to your child? She might not be well liked? She might be criticized or judged? Is that really her problem, or a problem built into a flawed society that is full of sickness and meanness?

Should we really endeavor to change our children, to suppress their imaginations and senses of self-expression so that nobody will take a second glance at them, or challenge them to stand up for the things they believe in? I don’t get it. What is that really teaching them?

Our children must be small and mild and neutral and agreeable. After all, we want them to be accepted, right? We want them to have an easy life, right? We don’t want them to have to go through the torture of being different.

What about the torture of feeling like you can’t be who you believe you really are, inside? What about when your parents, who are supposed to support you and encourage you, no matter what, suddenly side with a bunch of strangers and give them the power to decide how you should look, what you should care about and enjoy, and who you should love?

What about the fact that kids who choose to shove themselves down inside, who comply, who have an easy life and the approval of everybody? What happens when those kids wake up one morning and they’re 30 years old and they feel sad all the time, but they don’t know why? They feel like, despite growing up and achieving the things they were supposed to achieve, they have no idea who they really are. They lived in a way that made everybody happy. They didn’t make unpopular choices, they didn’t push any limits or break any invisible rules. They wake up and find out that they have no passion and no bravery and no real reason to keep being themselves.

It seems to me that our kids are people. They’re not us. They’re also not just a piece of society that we should manipulate and make decisions for. They have their own thoughts, their own tastes, their own ideas. Instead of trying to mold our children into something they aren’t, we should encourage our kids to be what they want to be, who they believe they really are.

It’s my job as a parent to protect my kids from harm. I consider it my duty to try as hard as I can to help my daughters build a solid sense of self, to love who they really believe they are, so that they’ll thrive in spite of, or maybe even because of the opposition of a society full of boring, pointless conditions.

Comments on Are we protecting our kids from the right things?

  1. I used to wear really crazy clothes. I have an aunt who always commented about it to my mom, “Did you see what Ami was wearing today?” And my mom would reply that she had and she didn’t see the problem. I was completely covered. Nothing was offensive. I just wanted to wear orange tights with my pink leapordprint skirt. Sue me. Whenever people commented my mom would usually say “Meh. She could be into way worse things.”
    It’s so true. Parents need to protect kids from the real dangers: Sharks and killer robots. Not expression.

  2. While this, “They wake up and find out that they have no passion and no bravery and no real reason to keep being themselves,” seems almost unnecessarily fatalistic, I agree on the whole. The idea of teaching conformity over individuality is a nasty one, and it’s a trap I hope not to fall into as my son is old enough to start making more obvious individual choices.

  3. This hits home for me because I was that kid, the one who wore pretty much anything to school and had no interest in the “appropriate” clothes.

    And for the most part, it served me well. But one thing I never realized was that my dressing so differently I ended up alienating a lot of my peers, and I think it caused some social problems. Being the new girl at school is bad enough, being the new girl at school who sticks out like a sore thumb was really rough.

    I’m glad my parents let me dress as I did, but I wish they would have encouraged me to learn to play the part of “everyone else” as well, so I could choose which was right for the situation. I think it’s perfectly fine to trash the rules, but I do think there’s value in learning what they are first.

    • “I think it’s perfectly fine to trash the rules, but I do think there’s value in learning what they are first.”

      YES. I think this is really important. If you don’t know what rules you’re breaking, you’re not really making a conscious choice, are you?

  4. This brings to mind what Frank Zappa said:

    “The more boring a child is, the more the parents, when showing off the child, receive adulation for being good parents — because they have a tame child-creature in their house.”

  5. “It’s your job to do everything you can to protect her from being ridiculed.””

    Actually it’s not our job to protect our child from being ridiculed. It’s our job to make sure our child doesn’t ridicule others. If more parents did this there wouldn’t even be an issue with how children chose to express themselves.

    • If only this were more practiced. Children are so mean to eachother! Bullying is such a problem and it breaks my heart to see children hurt so much by their peers.
      As a child who spent most of my time in school being ridiculed by the other kids in my class I can attest to the fact that it can be debilitating. I wish more parents taught their children the value of kindness rather than that of being accepted.

  6. I was really saddened by the general concensus that we should cut our little dude’s hair before he started Kindergarten so that he wouldn’t be made fun of. On top of his body being his own decision, it seems to me that taking that action sends the message that if someone doesn’t like something about you, then you should change it, even if the thing they dislike is simply a matter of taste.

    Then, on a more personal note, I have to check my own desires for my son to be one way or another in the name of “protection”. I have to assess why something he does bothers me, like playing shooting games, and decide whether that behavior’s consequences are something real or something that just bothers me into hyper-alert-mom mode.

    • Last fall, my 7-year-old daughter wanted a pixie cut. I wore my hair very short all through high school and was teased about it. A lot. She’s such a people pleaser, my girl. I knew it would really hurt her to be made fun of. I didn’t want her to be blindsided by negative reactions, but I also didn’t want to discourage her or even to influence her decision. When we talked about cutting her hair, I mentioned that I had short hair as a kid, that I loved it, but some people teased me and said I looked like a boy.

      At the salon, she got very nervous. I asked if she’d changed her mind, and she said, “No, I really, really want a pixie cut, but what if people laugh at me?” So, we talked about teasing and how it feels to be teased. I told her that I didn’t care about her hair one way or another, but that it seemed pretty crappy to me not to have something you really want because someone else might not like it.

      She’s worn her pixie cut for a year now, and she has been teased now and then and sometimes people mistake her for a boy, and she just rolls her eyes. This teasing seems to roll off her as other teasing did not. I think it’s because she made this decision for herself–a pretty big decision for a little one–and now she owns it and she can stand up for it. This seems like an important lesson to me, one that’s worth a little discomfort.

  7. Having grown up as one of those kids who dyed her hair early, dressed in thrift-store chic a decade and a half before it was trendy, and who has spent most of her life buried in books, I am 100% behind the idea of protecting my kids from the “dangers” of the world not by restricting them, but by giving them safe, smart tools to use against anyone who wants to make them feel bad for who they are. I am a middle school teacher, so half of my job is spent discouraging hateful, intolerant, or just plain mean language. I think that this is real key. If my kids grow up with a strong sense of self respect, as well as a worldly understanding that others deserve the same respect (even when some pain in their life leads them to act cruelly), I will feel like I have protected them against the greatest possible ills. Of course, I know from experience that there are times and places when letting your true self out just is not safe, so my kids will know that, too, and will hopefully celebrate the times when it is.

  8. Yeah, this is one of those “all about finding the balance” issues for me. My parents kept me pretty isolated from mainstream culture (tiny hippie private schools, etc) so that I wouldn’t feel judged or be “corrupted” by it. There was a certain point (middle school) when I had to go trial by fire to see if I could integrate. It was… awful. Miserable!

    I do wish that they’d given me a few more skills to relate to my peers… but that’s a different thing that wishing they’d encouraged me to conform. Kids need the skills to understand the world in which they live — in other words, they need the tools to understand why other children might mock them for being “weird.” It’s not that children need to conform, but I think it’s key that each child have the tools to understand what they’re not conforming to and why some people think it matters.

    • This reminds me of when my eight-year-old brother decided to get his ear pierced. My mother explained to him that he might get teased at school for it but that ultimately, it was his decision.

      He did go through with it – and yeah, he did get teased mercilessly. (But let’s be honest – that would have happened no matter what.) But my mother did try to equip him with tools to deal with that.

  9. I don’t think it’s our job as parents to keep our child being ridiculed by curbing their personality. I feel like it’s our job to show them we love them no matter what choices they make because they are beautiful, wonderful human beings. I wouldn’t want to discourage my son from being himself because of what others will think. I think it’s fair to warn him that he may face some prejudice if they chose to do things/wear things that others might think of as odd, but if in the end that’s what he chooses to do I think it’s a my role to make sure he knows that I love and support him.

    Being out in the world, everybody faces people who don’t like them or put them down for things that they do. I think it’s valuable to be able to stand up and be yourself and know that there are people in your life who love who you are.

  10. I knew from the moment I was pregnant, I would deal with people’s prejudice’s, as would my son. I’ve always been outside the box, and once you have children, everyone thinks your business is theirs. It started with my hair, and now it’s about my sons hair. I had teal hair at one point during my pregnancy, and people always asked, “Is it safe for you to dye your hair while you’re pregnant?” I was offended anyone had the gall to question me as a mother before my child was born! But I let it slide most of the time and respectfully explained that I had checked with my doctor and he had given me the A-OK. Now, though, my flamboyant hair is a thing of the past and everyone harps on me about the length of my sons hair. I’ve explained that I don’t want to cut it a million times, but even my mom has resorted to the, “Well at least cut his bangs.” bit. People mistake him for a girl regularly (though I suppose it doesn’t help that he has pink converse’s) and if they say, “How old is he?” I just say, “HE’S 3.” I hope by letting the innocently oblivious to the rare sarcastically pointed comments just roll off of me, I’m setting the example for my son that our family is tolerant, and some people aren’t, but we don’t need to let it bother us, or upset us. At least, I hope that will do for now.

  11. Little kids have the whole rest of their lives to be judged by their appearance, I say let them wear what they want when they’re little and their friends don’t care!

    Every time I see a little kid dressed in unmatched clothes and bright colours or silly things, I think of my sister. Mom bought her a little witch costume for her 2nd Halloween and she wore it just about everywhere for the next two years. It was her favorite dress.

    10 years later when my son took a a shine to a Spiderman Halloween costume (Complete with stuffed muscles!) and wanted to wear it all the time, I let him! He was super happy in his Spiderman costume, and he did not grow up to think he actually was Spiderman, or that he had super powers. He knew the difference between pretend and real. When He would go to pre-school I would convince him to dress in regular clothes, which he called “Peter Parker clothes” Usually he’d pick out khakis and a polo shirt when he was Peter Parker!

    He’s almost 11 now and sometimes when I see him in skinny jeans, high tops and skateboard t-shirts and hoodies, I miss that Spiderman costume.

    • We have a philosophy somewhere along those lines. I work in a corporate job, so that means no crazy clothes, no brightly colored hair, no crazy make-up, etc. That’s not me, that’s ninja me, sneaking my way through corporate america with folks none-the-wiser. The things that we wear are costumes. We can be whoever we need to be by putting on different clothes or hats or whatever. While I will let my son develop to be the person he wants to be, including his hair, clothes, and whatever, I will make sure he realizes that there might be times when we have to wear the boring costume, or the dressy costume. It doesn’t make him a different person, it just makes him seem that way.

      • This reminds me of how my dad raised me. He used to tell me that there are no inappropriate outfits, just outfits that are inappropriate for certain situations. He used to tell me that everything you wear is just a costume and that different costumes are necessary for different situations. I still follow that philosophy.

    • this got me lol we let my younger brother wear a spider man outfit everywhere we went for a good 2 or 3 years. my dad objected to it at first but finally i was just like “dad, are you the one dressed as spider man? no? then why do u care?” the looks we got were pretty hilarious though 🙂

  12. I was really severely psychologically bullied as a child, and I’m sure part of it was my complete cluelessness when it came to the interests shared by many of my classmates (I liked black and white TV and Dolly Parton, they liked Saved By the Bell and New Kids on the Block). I was, indeed, a clueless dork by their standards.

    It’s true that, if my parents had stepped in and pushed me to conform, I may have been bullied less. But as a still very nonconformist adult, happy in my eccentricity, I am very grateful that they didn’t. (I am not, however, grateful that they didn’t send me to another school where I might’ve had some other clueless dorks to play with, but that’s another story.)

    I once met someone who told me that their deepest, darkest fear was to stand out, be different, and be noticed by others. It made me so terribly sad to hear that.

  13. While I agree you should never squash a child’s creativity and sense of self, the concerns about bullying are very real and viable. Often, adults who were bullied as children grow up not whole. I am STILL afraid of people who just look pretty and popular and perfect, and I’m 32! I still wonder frequently what went wrong with me that makes me question and seek instead of meekly following along with the crowds. Kids SHOULD be protected with bullying. We see/hear news stories about children bearly into their teens killing themselves for being bullied. When an adult is relentlessly mean to another adult, it’s called harassment. When an adult is relentlessly mean to a child, it’s called abuse. Why is it then “normal” for a child or group of children to be relentlessly mean to another child?

    • “I am STILL afraid of people who just look pretty and popular and perfect and I’m 32!”

      Yes, me too (although, 20, not 32, so maybe it’s different…) and I wasn’t even bullied beyond mild scorn & lifted eyebrows– I went to a pretty awesome diverse school. But, like, I didn’t watch TV and was totally obsessed with sonnets. Girls with flat-ironed hair and lots of eyeliner scare the crap out of me.

      BUT: I think, ultimately, it is wayy more stressful to try and conform to the norm than to adjust to being your own person in a world full of other people. The norm changes as you mature, and trying to keep up with it must be exhausting; but once you find your own aesthetic and stick to it, it gets easier and easier to do. Maybe initially learning to be an individual is tough, but in the long run, it’s much easier than learning to be a conformist.

    • “I still wonder frequently what went wrong with me that makes me question and seek instead of meekly following along with the crowds.”

      Absolutely nothing went wrong with you! It is the ones who meekly follow along with the crowd that have it wrong, in my opinion.

  14. LOVE this article! Thank you so much for writing it. I understand the instict of parents to want to shelter and protect their kids from anything that may harm them, especially bullying. But as someone who was bullied pretty consistantly throughout grade school, I can tell you there’s very little that can be done to stop it on the victim’s part. Kids don’t bully others because the victim “chose” to be different. It happens because of the bully’s own insecurities and ignorance, and because they’ve been taught that this kind of behavior is acceptable. If we are to put an end to bullying, we as parents and a society must send a clear, consistant message to our children that bullying behavior is NEVER acceptable and that there is nothing more abhorrent than deliberately hurting another human being simply because they are different from us.

  15. I just want to say AMEN! my mom was very liberal with me, free-range before it was a “thing” and i bounced from persona to person for years before i settled on one…i was a bohemian chick who washed her hair with ivory bar soap so it would dred up, a headbanger who dressed in all black and listened to AC/DC, a redneck wannabe, a punk chick listening to the dead milkmen, and my hair has been every color of the rainbow at least twice. when i was 8 she helped me draw fake tattoos on my neck and arms and spiked my hair so i could be a “punk rocker” for halloween. all of this helped me figure shit out, i still love AC/DC and a few dead milkmen songs cause nostalgia, but i learned i dont like chewing tobacco and i DO like being able to run my fingers through my hair.
    and so, even though i am anti-princess, i will grudging buy my daughter a Rapunzel doll if she wants one, but will be secretly pleased when she ditches said doll after few hours and returns to her legos. or not. either way, she is a treasure.

  16. I was teased a lot as a kid, not for any particularly non-conformist acts, just because I was slightly awkward and sensitive, and thus an easy target. I think it made me a better person, more sympathetic to others’ pain, and ultimately lead me to realize that what is right and what other people think aren’t necessarily the same thing.

  17. Eh, if I learned anything from my own childhood its that if kids decide you’re going to be the picked on one, they don’t need actual reasons. My boyfriend was shocked to realize that I was made fun of just as much as he was in school. “But your parents are rich” (they’re not, but we were very comfortably middle class). He’d always been made fun of for being poor, but the truth is that kids are perfectly willing to just make up reasons to make fun of you if they think you’d make a good victim. I was pretty, middle class and smart (all our popular kids were in the gifted program) with married, heterosexual parents. I have no idea why I was teased so mercilessly. Lord knows I tried to conform.

    By contrast, my friend Lili was one of those crazy, tacky, brightly clothed kids. One day she was wearing a t-shirt legging combo that I thought wasn’t just off the wall, but actually looked bad together. I asked her why she wore such things and one of the popular girls who happened to be walking by stopped to berate *me* for criticizing Lili’s decision to always wear such fearless attire.

    So ultimately, if your kid is going to be the kid the assholes make fun of, no amount of conforming will save them from that. And if they’re charismatic enough to inspire loyalty and admiration in their peers, it won’t matter if they’re off the wall. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but its my own anecdotal truth.

    • Massively agree with this. Kids will tease the people they get a reaction out of, I suppose. There may not be any obvious reason for them being nasty to you at all.

      So on that basis, much better to raise confident, self-assured kids who don’t care about teasing than scared, conforming kids who are terrified to stand out – because they might get teased anyway!

  18. i think there’s a little more to this issue than clothing.

    fitting in reaches a dangerous point when a child is no longer a child legally, and all their desperate attempts to fit in are “uncontrollable” by the parent. that’s not to say that childhood is the time to control and mold to the adequate type of person you think will thrive in polite society, but rather its the time to teach them about all of the beautiful differences that make up this world of ours, that good and evil does exist and we should be aware of them in order to find the manner of living that suits us and truly makes us happy to be alive.

    some kids are passive and others agressive, and when both types meet you see a leader-follower relationship. if the leader has been raised with no knowledge of repercussions, it is the blind followers who suffer. this applies to the days fashions of course but, as i have experienced, also more serious things like the acceptance of being in an abusive relationship. its fine for our children to be free-range, but never savage.

  19. I don’t exactly know how I’ve managed to raise a 14 girl who is quirky and kind, irrepressibly her own unique self, doesn’t care what others may say about her aesthetic choices, is not one of the “populars” but still seems to be well liked by many and has made a small handful of true blue friends, but I am eternally grateful for it. I also love that she trusts me and my opinion. She actually came out and said “Mom, I expect you to tell me if you think I look bad”, after we tried and pretty much failed to get her hair into a faux-hawk for the homecoming dance. We went with bright red streaks and a jaunty mini top hat instead. She knows that a 14 year old dressing like a hooker is not appropriate anywhere, that there are serious situations that call for the more toned downed “costumes” mentioned by others. She’s only 14 and she knows who she is more than I did when I was 28. I am soooooo lucky. Okay, done bragging now 🙂

  20. “What happens when those kids wake up one morning and they’re 30 years old and they feel sad all the time, but they don’t know why? They feel like, despite growing up and achieving the things they were supposed to achieve, they have no idea who they really are.”
    Man, I read this and just about threw up. It didn’t take me until I was 30, but around 23 (about a year or two ago) I started to realize that I was a mirror of those around me and not really my own person at all… and that I didn’t know who I was! I have to admit, finding Offbeat Bride was actually the catalyst. I’d been questioning why I was so unhappy with life, why I had no idea what I wanted to do because all the options in front of me were not appealing. I was finally able to realize that it was because I was limiting myself to only those careers or futures that were socially expected for me. My parents never supressed me at all – I naturally wanted to be just like everyone else, which I basically was, but I got teased pretty badly (to the point that I am still REALLY sensitive about certain things).
    And now I still am not fully comfortable with expressing myself. I love more outlandish styles, and I even buy some clothes to fit, but I don’t wear them. I try them on and ask one of my friends or my sister or husband, and I get raised eyebrows. Not because they disapprove, but because they are surprised that I would wear something like that! And to be fair, I never would have. It’s a tough transition, but it my forced conformity wans’t due to my parents (except maybe for the fact that they were super normal and conformed, without explicitly teaching me to be). I do think the biggest thing to do as a parent is to help your child get through teasing. The It Gets Better Project could even be a good learning tool, seeing other people who you never thought would get teased because they’re so pretty or charming or whatever, and yet they are bullied horribly. Knowing you’re not alone is pretty awesome.

  21. Really interesting post – it’s something I often think about. My mum pretty much encouraged me to be unconventional, but she also was sure to tell me there’s a price to pay for being different. My husband is quite unconventional, but has an uneasy relationship with non-conformism. On one level he likes it, on another he worries a lot about how it impacts on him and how it might impact on our kids, eg, it’s all very fun to have a lot of your mates being countercultural alternative types, but what about building social connections that will help you get by in life? It’s cool to look different, but the fact is it will make a lot of people judge you negatively, and so on. We’ll have to see how this pans out as our kids grow up!

  22. My parents were this way. Especially my father, who lives by a very narrow definition of “success,” was very judgmental of my eco-freakiness, connection with nature, and desires for weird piercings and tattoos. I was upset by my father’s desire for me to be “like everyone else,” but that didn’t stop me from doing all those things when I got out of college!

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