My 8-year-old son, Cooper, is becoming aware of efforts people make to change their appearances. He’s made comments to me, such as, “Mom, why are you putting makeup on? What do you think, you’re 12 years old or something? Why do girls want to paint themselves up like clowns?”
At a recent family dinner, he announced he likes the way Dad looks. “At least he’s not a dork,” he added. I was a bit perplexed, as Cooper resists the dapper, clean cut, Johnson County dad look, into which my husband fits. Some of the time.
The next night, Cooper dressed up special to celebrate Dad’s birthday out. He put on camouflage pants, red argyle socks and gelled his hair. He showed off the crowning jewel of his ensemble, a specially chosen T-shirt with a vicious, sharp-toothed monster skateboarding.
“Dad loves monsters,” he explained. And it became clear. It is not dad’s buttoned-up style that Cooper admires, it’s his collection of obscure concert T-shirts with graphics that hover the line between “edgy” and “disturbing.”
The kids have witnessed, and participated in, a number of discussions about those shirts. I’m merciless with criticism. Cooper takes up defense of Daddy’s bloody monster with glowing eyes. Sylvia tries to remain neutral, pointing out pretty colors but agreeing that the glowing eyeballs are a little much. Daddy just smirks in his beloved creepy shirts. I love my husband’s moxie.
And then one night, Cooper asked me point blank, “Mom, do you care what I look like?”
Does that sound like a loaded question to you? It did to me. He’s a smart kid — and I suspected he was looking for a particular answer, perhaps one he would attempt to use against me. A “yes” could be misconstrued as conditional acceptance. A “no” could be twisted into permission to get a tattoo on his forehead.
“Um, I guess that depends,” I stalled, waiting to see where this line of questioning was headed.
“Do you still love me, no matter what I look like?” he pursued. That was easier to answer. I’ll always love him — face tattoo or no.
“Of course, babe,” I said.
“Will you still love me even if I wear a black shirt?” (?) “And black pants?” (??) “And if my skin is all pale?” (???) “Would you love me even if I’m Goth?” Ohhh, he’s thinking of going Goth. Interesting for a third-grader, but hardly shocking for him.
“Yes, dear, even if you’re Goth, I’ll love you.”
“Cool, mom, I might try it when I’m 13 or something. Do you think I’d look cool with black spiky hair and dark black around my eyes?” With his big eyes and big teeth, he could end up looking like Liza Minelli. But I didn’t tell him that.
“Yeah, you might look cool like that,” I said.
I can certainly think of worse things than Goth. The artsy outsider might fit him well. And I’ve told you about his dad; I’d be surprised by a kid who didn’t want to push the usual adult-prescribed limits.
I felt like I was supposed to resist in order to be a good mom. Aren’t parents supposed to rein their kids in and hold them to the standards of others? We’re supposed to lick our hands to squash their cowlicks and make them tuck their collared shirts neatly into their khakis. There’s a fashion show going on out there, and we’re supposed to march them down the runway.
But I don’t want to. I want to protect my kids’ freedom of self-expression. I’d rather buy him some temporary hair color and let him borrow my eyeliner. Even if it makes him look like a clown. What does he think, he’s 12 years old or something? No matter, I love him.
Overland Park mom and 913 freelancer Emily Parnell blogs at mom2momkc.com.