A few weeks ago my daughter-in-law set me a challenge to write a column explaining how to tell a friend that the Justin Bieber hairdo was, um, A MISTAKE. It was obviously topical for her, and given that parents have started rows over their teenage children's appearance since time immemorial, the art of criticising a young person's appearance in a constructive way could probably bear a little attention.
My answer to her would be leave him alone; he'll work it out when he discovers that he has a swarm of 10-year-old girls around him while the ladies of his own generation giggle in the background. It's a good strategy for parents, too, if it's really not a life-threatening or career-killing problem. But there are some things you can do to help prevent your kids making bad appearance choices in the first place.
Let's start at the very beginning, with apologies to Maria von Trapp.
I'm a huge believer in letting toddlers and preschoolers dress themselves in what they want to wear as soon as they're able. (Please note that this does NOT include an open order from OshKosh or similar children's trendwear store in order to keep up with the Joneses!! I'm talking about choosing something from their existing wardrobe, or if you must let them loose on retail land, the op shop!)
The benefits of self-dressing are both physical and emotional. Doing up buttons and the like strengthens the muscles in the fingers and gives fine motor co-ordination practice, while doing things for themselves creates confidence and resilience. Do beware of over-helping your children- it's easy to do, especially when you're in a hurry. Try to allow enough time in the morning to at least give them a chance to try getting themselves dressed; let them choose the clothes the night before.
Yes, they may end up leaving the house in clashing colours and clothes inappropriate for the weather. The colours may hurt your eye and your style reputation, but they will enhance your child's feeling of independence and self-reliance and encourage their creativity, and that's a good thing- who knows, if they get right into it you may get half an hour's peace now and then while they experiment with different outfits. Pick your battles; a battle over wearing the red cardigan over the Barbie pink dress with the lurid green Shrek crocs and the candy-striped tights is just not worth the energy.
The wrong clothes for the weather is a learning experience, and you need to provide back-up here. Talk to them about the weather while they dress themselves, and suggest some options, but don't push it beyond throwing a few items together like a display and saying 'I think this is good for a cold day, what do you think?'. If they put on the shoestring straps and thongs when it's blowing a gale, grab their favourite warm jacket as you go out the door- but DON'T nag them to put it on, and DON'T give it to them without a cue. Wait till they complain of the cold, and DON'T say 'I told you so' as you hand it over. Next time they try the same trick, remind them as they're dressing what happened last time and ask if they'd like to take a jacket 'just in case'.
If they say no, don't take the jacket for them this time unless you really think they're too young to understand (eg a 2- or 3-year-old may have dressing skills, but not the recall and understanding of cause and effect yet- keep trying, keep backing them up). The consequence of not listening to good advice needs to be learnt in small and concrete ways before they hit adolescence.
By letting them choose and make mistakes now and then, you're helping them to learn from experience, developing their memory skills and nurturing their self-esteem (instead of proving how superior you are or over-coddling them).
Slightly older children
I'm going to get on my soapbox now about a personal gripe.
PLEASE DO NOT SEXUALISE YOUR CHILDREN BEFORE THEIR TIME, even if they BEG you for trailer trash clothes. (By the way, 'sexualising your children' includes letting them watch video clips of singers performing sexualised dance moves wearing next to nothing, dressing in a blatantly sexualised manner yourself, letting them witness sexual activities between you and your partner and leaving porn magazines around; they get their role models from somewhere, you know.)
If you allow this with teenies and tweenies, don't complain when they want to go out at 16 wearing a see-through top and no bra, or a t-shirt that reads 'f*** me, I'm hot!'- it's a natural flow-on effect.
Gripe one: high heels. They wreck children's feet. (They wreck adults' feet, too, but that's their choice.) DON'T BUY THEM. They can get their first pair when they can pay for them themselves and understand the shortcomings. High heels were designed to make ladies' legs look longer for the purpose of attracting males. Do you want males to be attracted to a six-year-old?
Gripe two: super-brief Spandex middy tops and short, SHORT shorts, and the like. Why not just put a 'look at me, perverts!' sign around your child's neck? Your 10-year-old does NOT need to look like Brittany Spears. (After all, look how she turned out.)
Gripe three: make-up, training bras and lashings of jewellery. If you give her all this now, what is there left to look forward to, and where will she go when she gets to 15? That's right- the see-through top with no bra.
They still need to feel some freedom of choice and creativity. Take them shopping and let them choose their own clothes, BUT set boundaries by giving them a cash limit and a minimum list of items they need to have. This is a great practical maths lesson in budgeting, as well as a saver for you if they want to buy Benetton everything. If they want to buy something unsuitable because it's sexualised, you haven't laid the groundwork before you walked out the door- big mistake!
Have that little talk with them about appearance and how it can change what people think of you, especially strangers who you might not want looking at you. Look at pictures of kids' clothes in magazines, or in pattern catalogues in the haberdashery section, or at people walking past while you sit in the mall. Talk about what 'cheap', 'sleazy', 'trashy', 'skanky' or the latest derogatory word means, and how to get it thrown at you by wearing the wrong clothes. Pull out some old pictures of yourself in your youth and have a laugh; tell them you thought it was a good idea at the time- ask what they think now! Kids actually love being able to use labels like that, and if they end up leafing through Cosmo pointing and saying 'Skanky! Gross! Look, you can see her ****!', you're well on the way to ensuring that YOUR kid won't be dressed like that. (Do remind them that calling out such things at real people in public is NOT okay!)
And if your little boy is begging you for expensive designer surf/Disney-franchise wear or the like, you need to have a frank talk about money and what would have to be given up to buy him that stuff; you may even be able to do a transaction with him- no takeaways or soft drink for a month equals a desired item at the end of the month, for example. (Do the maths with him though, and make it authentic. One pair of sneakers equals how many bottles of Coke?)
If you feel he's going to be under unreasonable peer pressure for not having the 'cool gear' (and you can't change schools or neighbourhoods!), do check the op shops before you blow the budget out of sheer sympathy. Yes, every kid needs at least one outfit in which they can feel like one of the crowd.
If you haven't done the groundwork... you have trouble ahead. So pick any battle very carefully, and start catching up the groundwork now.
Be subtle. Attacking what your child is actually wearing to go out NOW is way too close to the bone; you need a less direct approach, because teenagers are terribly sensitive about their appearance and they go straight to defensive mode if you criticise them. They've spent a lot of time and thought getting that look. They probably DIDN'T do it just to get a rise out of you, unless your relationship with your child is already at rock-bottom.
The best you can do at the last minute is say something ambiguous, like 'Whew!', then take a photo of them dressed to the nines (as they think!) and show it to them, hoping that they'll see a problem too. DO avoid the sarcastic comments. They achieve absolutely nothing and damage your kid's respect for you. Most especially, DO NOT tell them they look fat in that, especially girls. Take a photo and show them without negative comment. (Are they fat? Deal with that issue another time, NOT now, and do so with extreme caution.)
If they're showing a dangerous amount of naked flesh, don't yell at them. Use the quiet voice to explain why you're alarmed. Take them to the full-length mirror and let them look for themselves- or even better, provide a full-length mirror in their bedroom once they start showing interest in REALLY dressing up.
What groundwork can you do at this age?
What magazines does your child read? Ask if you can have a look at some of them. Point to a picture of someone you think is dressed inappropriately and ask what your child thinks of that outfit. You can also do this while window shopping, or just looking at passers-by while having a quiet snack or a coffee together (what, you don't take your kid out to cafes? WHY NOT?). Tell her what worries you about certain outfits, and explain why very frankly. If you think it'll make the wrong types of men look at her with the wrong intention, say so.
Tell her she's beautiful on the inside. She needs to hear it. Tell her she's beautiful on the outside when she really is- don't be fake. Tell her what you think her best features are. Tell her what you think YOUR physical flaws are. Invite her comments, and it may remind you how vulnerable she feels about how she looks, despite the bravado.
But as I said, pick your battles. If it's not actually dangerous, shut up. Educate yourself. Look at what your child's friends and peers are wearing. Are you being too harsh? Think about your own teenage years, what you wore, what your parents said. Were they right? Were they over-reacting? Adolescents are trying to separate from their parents- it's their JOB to be different. Get out those photos of you at 16 again. Look with honest eyes. Share them with your kids again. Create conversation opportunities in a light-hearted, honest atmosphere.
Piercings and tattoos are another common source of grief. Most parents can accept ear-piercings- one or two, that is- but some kids just have to push the envelope. Make sure that they're getting them done hygienically- you don't need to get hysterical about AIDS (in fact it's not AIDS they're most likely to get- Hepatitis C is equally nasty and much more likely), just tell them to get it done professionally and if necessary provide the money for them to do so rather than letting them go for it with a dirty safety pin. Remember that when and if they get over it, the holes will grow over. Make sure they understand that in some circles, a pierced tongue indicates a willingness to supply oral sex and an earring in one ear can be an indicator of sexual preference.
Tats are harder for parents to get their head around, because they're well nigh impossible to undo, but the physical marks are actually the least of your problems. Teenagers have a limited ability to recognise risk (that's well-documented in road safety studies) and so you have some responsibilities to educate them in a palatable way. You must explain that if the parlour doesn't use single-use disposable needles or at the very least an autoclave (needle steriliser), they can give users AIDS.
They've probably heard that in school. They probably tuned out. How well they listen will depend on how well you've maintained a respectful relationship with them as they grew up; just make sure you've casually mentioned it at least once (and NOT over and over).
As ever, your best defence is NOT a reaction as your child walks out the door with a throw-away line about getting inked (or, god help us, IN the door with a brand new tat). It's preparation. You need to talk about the subject at the first opportunity when they hit That Age, and share opinions. Angelina Jolie will do as a starting point- heaven knows there are enough pictures of her tats around- or any other well-inked celebrity. Do mention the lack of wisdom of tattooing a partner's name on one's body... or anything obscene in a visible location... adolescents really don't have a good grip on consequence.
Do I need to mention that you have double trouble if your child abuses alcohol? All your talk and preparation will go straight out the window after a few drinks with friends who think that piercing one's genitals or tattooing 'f*** the Pope' on one's upper arm would be hilarious. That's a topic for another day. In the meantime, keep talking to your child- NOT AT your child- and even more important, keep listening. Communication is everything.