When I was little, I hated hair in my face. I am cursed with a small forehead (this is the part where you look at my face and say— Oh yeeeeaah… you DO have a small forehead!) so my hair blocks my line of vision easily. Thus, I spent much of my childhood, attacking my head with various barrettes in an attempt to avoid walking into walls.
On average, I would wear about six. All mismatched and comically close to my face. My mom let it go. Even for school pictures. Next time I'm back home, I'm gonna unearth that low point in my young life and show you some photo evidence.
But today we're talking about some horrific hair issues that are not safely hidden in a box in my mother's basement, but rather out and about in the bright light of sunny California. Sara, the enormously generous blogger from Periwinkle Papillon who decided to match my caption contest donation to the American Heart Association yesterday (Have you entered yet? It's not every day you get to make fun of a two-year-old's outfit for charity…) is having a very similar issue with her daughter, Anna. She's asking Dr. B a question about what the hell to do with a child who refuses to use a brush correctly.
Dear Dr. B,
My daughter, Anna, has been independent straight out of my womb. Recently, in addition to dressing herself, she is insisting on doing her own hair before school. Most moms would rejoice at this level of independence from a five year old, but I find myself fearing that Child Protective Services might knock on my door one day soon. See, her independent "hairstyle" borders on looking "unkempt" and almost neglected. So while it's incredibly cute and realistically a huge help to me that she wants to get herself ready, I cringe a little bit right before she steps out the door.
I want to be supportive and encouraging but I also don't want her to be an easy target and subsequently embarrassed at a school. What's a mom to do?
Children are born into the world with their own unique way of interacting and reacting to their environment, which is referred to as a child’s temperament. Some children have a natural tendency to be strong willed and independent while other children are more flexible, reliant, or slow to warm up.
Parents also have unique temperaments and often a child’s behavior appears problematic due to a mismatch between the child’s and parent’s temperament. For instance, a child who has a tendency to be strong willed and asserts herself by wanting to do things her own way (such as her hair) and a parent who has similar traits (and wants her child’s hair to look perfect) will likely result in a very negative interaction pattern. Therefore, parents often need to adapt or change their style of interacting or expectations to meet their child’s needs.
On the other hand, some children assert their control in an attempt to feel more secure in their environment when they feel overwhelmed by unpredictability. Understanding your child’s behavior in the context of her environment and her temperament can help you figure out the degree of structure and flexibility that she needs to promote her independence without worrying about being too permissive. Most children respond best to parents who set clear limits and provide guidance without being overbearing.
Setting limits is critical when resistant behaviors have the potential to pose a significant threat to your child’s health or safety. A misshaped ponytail would not fall into this category and is a time when you can feel comfortable supporting and encouraging her individuality. At the same time, children do need to learn to accept adult guidance in order to expand their knowledge and skills.
Therefore, it may be important to focus on teaching her how to accept your guidance in the hairstyling process. Below are some suggestions that may help make hairstyling more fun and the end product more acceptable for all parties involved:
Offer choices: When children are provided with two or more acceptable choices, they are able to assert their control but on your terms. Choices offered for hair could include selecting among different types of ponytails or braids or hair accessories. You could also make the activity more fun by cutting out pictures of hairstyles from a magazine. Another type of choice could include a reward. For example, “You can do your hair yourself or you can let mommy help you and get a special treat.”
Teach: Create opportunities at other times during the day to practice her hairstyling skills. Play a “hair salon” game and let her brush and style your hair and/or a doll’s hair. Give her pointers on how you like to style your hair and then take turns, giving you the opportunity to style her hair. Praise her when she lets you style her hair which will increase her likelihood to let you do her hair again in the future.
Find fun alternatives: Buy a few dolls with long or curly hair along with fun brushes, combs, and hair accessories. Try giving her a doll’s hair to style in the morning while you help her with her hair. This may provide her with a fun distraction and make her more willing to let you style her hair. You can also use the dolls to teach her how to create different hairstyles that she can attempt in her own hair.
Be a Model: Children learn best from imitating adult behavior and often try to model things they see adults do. Try catching her attention by styling your hair in a new and different way (e.g., pigtails, braids, or a side ponytail). Ask her if she wants you to give her the same hairdo.
Use Humor: Pretend the hairbrush is a special character, give it a name, and have it take on a personality of its own. Create a special voice for the brush and have the brush tell your daughter what it wants to do and how it feels when it does not get its way.
Many children want to do things by themselves. Whenever possible, offer choices and make learning fun so that they seek and welcome your help and guidance along the way. Consider your child’s temperament when determining the appropriate expectation and environment needed to teach new skills. Be patient and allow your child to practice these skills, celebrating each small step toward success and greater independence without lowering their self-esteem or infringing on their sense of individuality.
And one more thing— choose your battles wisely.
Dr. B has a PHD in school psychology and specializes in early childhood development. If you have a question for Dr. B, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.