Dear Mr. Dad: My 14-year-old son just dyed his hair blue and is wearing torn up jeans and sweatshirts with vulgar slogans on them. He's generally a good boy and does well at school, but many relatives, friends, and family are more conservative and think it's a sign that he's running with the "wrong" crowd. I tried to persuade him to drop this new look, but he says he likes it, has the right to wear what he wants, and is planning to get a nose piercing and maybe a tattoo. My wife says we have to lay down the law. I don't want to be so annoying, but I'm honestly concerned about who he's hanging out with. Any suggestions?
A: Before you do anything, think about this from a broader perspective. Teenagers have been setting (or following fashion trends – and ticking off their parents – for literally thousands of years. I'm pretty sure I remember Plato writing something about "kids these days ... ." Back in the 1950s, there was the greaser look, then in the 60s and 70s it was long hair, tie-dye, and bare feet. After that, there was goth, and now it's, well, who knows what it is.
Think back to your own adolescence. Did you always wear the kind of clothes your parents approved of, or did you sometimes use your wardrobe to show some defiance? Truth be told, most of us, at one time or another, wore clothes deemed inappropriate by the older generation. And yet, we somehow turned out to be upstanding, respectable citizens.
There's an obvious paradox in parenthood: we encourage our children to grow up and find their own way in life, but we want them to do it while wearing the clothes we find acceptable.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Your son is now at an age when he's trying to find and assert his own identity. At 14, he's no longer a child, but not yet an adult. It's a challenging time of transition, soul-searching, and self-discovery. Where does he belong in the greater scheme of things? What does his future hold? Neon hair, piercings, and other accouterments of today's counterculture are his way of defining and staking claim to his individuality. Ironic, isn't it, that he's expressing that individuality by conforming to the fashion trends set by his peers?
Should you be worried? It depends. If your son's personality has changed dramatically, if his schoolwork is suffering, if he's uncommunicative, secretive, or belligerent, then yes, you should definitely not ignore those signs, and take appropriate action immediately.
But you say that he's a good boy and does well at school. So why not cut him some slack. Practice communication rather than confrontation. Ask him what he likes about his look. Don't challenge or criticize; just listen and show interest in what he tells you.
As far as the crowd he's hanging with, do you know his friends? Encourage him to bring them over. If they turn out to be a bunch of actual hoodlums, lay down the law, by all means. But if they're just playing video games and going through Costco-size bags of snacks, take a deep breath and relax. If your son feels that you accept him and his friends, that will solidify your relationship and help him get through the rough patches of adolescence.
As you hopefully learned when your son was about three, some battles are worth fighting, but many aren't. As parents, we have to choose those battles wisely. If your child's health or safety is at stake, a battle may be justified. In your case, the hair color probably isn't – is anyone being hurt? The vulgar slogans may be worth working out a compromise (such as not around younger siblings or anyone who might be offended). And since piercings and tattoos usually require a parent's approval for kids under 18, they might fall into the health-and-safety category.
Remember: in all likelihood, this will pass. A few years from now, when your son makes the transition from adolescent to adult, you can both look back at his "punk phase" and have a good laugh about it.
(Read Armin Brott's blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to email@example.com.)