My child and I have different tastes in clothes and hairstyles. What should I accept?

As kids get older, they want more control over clothing purchases and haircuts. Depending on age and interest, they may ask for a little more say or they may ask to make all decision themselves. As long as parents and kids share the same taste, there’s usually little conflict. But when tastes differ, as they often do, there can be frequent struggles. Some parents first deal with this issue when their child is ten to twelve years old; other parents have been arguing about clothes since their child was in preschool.

Most kids decide how they want to look based on how their friends look. Dressing like a friend gives a child a sense of belonging. Specific styles are less important than “fitting in.” Some groups of kids like clothes and hairstyles that draw attention. They want to wear outrageous shirts, cut their jeans, or color or shave part of their hair. Some groups dress for comfort or prefer a conservative look. Still others are label-conscious and like the latest fashions.

Under the influence of peers, a child may quickly change her mind about what she likes. One eleven-year-old refused to wear the jacket her mother handed her. But when the girl’s friend said, “I like that coat,” the girl put it on. Another child pleaded with his mother to buy a pair of decorated jeans. After wearing them to school one day, he said he’d never wear them again because everybody teased him: “I was so embarrassed I didn’t want to stand up the whole day.”

Even without peer influence, a child’s taste can change suddenly. She may get dressed for an occasion; look in the mirror, and say, “This dress is too big.” “I like the pants but I don’t like the shirt it came with.” “I look terrible.” She may think everything looks better on someone else. She may like her friends’ clothes better than her own, even when the items are almost identical. Some kids even exchange clothes with friends in school bathrooms.

All of this can be very frustrating for parents. Their suggestions are often ignored and their purchases rejected: “Mom, nobody wears that.” Their advice is met with defensiveness. One parent told her twelve-year-old daughter she dressed too much like a boy. The girl said, “But all my friends have these shirts!” One boy who got a stylish haircut all over the objections of his parents said, “Now I look like a normal thirteen-year-old.”

A child’s desire for faddish or inappropriate clothes and hairstyles can easily lead to tension. Some families struggle constantly over makeup, shaved heads, pierced ears, ripped jeans, and long bangs.

If you’re unhappy about your child’s taste, set firm limits. The standards you reinforce now will set a precedent for what you’ll accept in her later adolescent years. Tell her which styles you won’t allow: “You can’t wear that tight shirt.” “You’re too young to wear make-up to school.” “That’s an offensive picture on that T-shirt.”

Try compromising on items that are acceptable but make you uncomfortable: “You can buy baggy jeans, but those are too large.” “We can look for that shoe in another color.” Let your child know when she can wear certain clothes: “Those shorts are fine if you’re with your friends, but I want you to wear something neater to Uncle Alan’s.” If a major family event such as Thanksgiving is approaching, tell her she’ll have to wait until afterward to change her hairstyle.

While it’s appropriate to set limits on extreme styles, try to accept many of your child’s choices and compliment her as often as you can. She still wants your approval, and constant criticism from you can harm her self-image. Remember your own feelings about clothes, appearance, and independence while growing up. Your frustrations then are similar to hers now.

You may find tensions decrease if you give her a clothing allowance, as many parents of thirteen-year-olds do. Go over spending guidelines: “Use this money to buy one shirt and one pair of pants.” “You can get one shirt for thirty dollars or two for thirty dollars, depending on which store you go to.”

Whatever your differences in taste, try to keep the issue in perspective. As long as your child does well in school, has friends, and is involved in activities, the style of haircut and clothing she prefers may he relatively unimportant. The only need for concern is if she generally isn’t doing well or if she consistently chooses styles to antagonize you and others. This may be the sign of a deeper problem you need to pay attention to.

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