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Hanna: Blue Hair

For my daughter’s seventh birthday, all she wanted was blue hair. So I bought her some blue clip-on hair extensions, which she wore on her first day of second grade in her new school in Seattle, where we were spending the semester.

This established her as the supremely cool kid from Vermont. But the extensions kept falling out and eventually her teacher confiscated them. This is when the relentless begging began. “Please mom, let me dye my hair. I’ve shown commitment,” she’d argue. And so, I gave in. I somehow convinced myself that the blue hair was an act of empowerment – a way for her to control how people saw her.

But I regretted this decision the minute the bleach went on her hair. I could hear other people in the salon whispering “What kind of mother allows a child that young to chemically treat her hair?” It was then that it occurred to me that hair dye might even be a gateway to heroin.

For the next three hours as the stylist stripped and colored and blew her dry, I vowed to stop being a modern parent, and I did something I promised myself would never happen: I started to channel my mother, who would never have let me do such a thing.

It was a rare sunny Seattle day as we walked home, and my daughter’s blue hair shown bright - her smile even brighter – but I was hunched over in shame. Then a young man – who looked like one of those throwaway kids who come to the city when their parents kick them out and they have no place else to go - stopped us. “You’re a good mother,” he said. “It’s really cool that you let your daughter have blue hair.”

Now, there was no way for this young man to know that we had just come from the salon or that I was in internal turmoil and totally freaked out. He bent down and said to my daughter, “you have a really cool mom. She accepts you for who you are. That’s a gift.” My daughter just beamed, and the young man touched me on the arm and walked away. She’s now 10, and after three years committed to blue, she’s let her locks return to their natural color. And she hasn’t yet shown an interest in mind-altering drugs.

I’ve wondered a lot about that young man in Seattle. I don’t know if his parents rejected him, or if he was just someone who was unusually insightful. But I do know that I’ve contemplated many times what it means to accept your children as they are. How one navigates a child’s desires with a parent’s guidance is something I struggle with nearly every day.

If I learned anything from the blue hair experience, it’s that there’s no playbook for these decisions; that sometimes, a stranger may see more clearly than we do ourselves; and that in the end, after all, it was only hair.

The late Cheryl Hanna was a professor at Vermont Law School in Royalton.
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