Thursday, February 10, 2011

No means No but I want Yes

I believe in personal autonomy. Our bodies are our own and no one gets to do anything to them without our consent. This is something I also want to teach my children. No one gets to touch them or require that they do anything they don't want to do.

Not even me.

And that's where it gets hard. I draw a line around safety- no, Margaret can't decide to stop in the middle of the crosswalk while the light turns green for the traffic heading towards us, and so I have to pick her up and bring her safely to the other side. And then we sit while she expresses her frustration about that, which usually takes less than a minute but feels like 20.

But other than safety, I want to respect her boundaries.

And this is where things get hairy (pathetic pun, groan). She doesn't like her hair combed. She doesn't like her hair washed. And as I take a comb to it or pour a cup of water over it, she screams, "No, Mommy! It's my hair! Stop!"

And I sigh. She's right, it's her hair. But I really really really want to comb it. And I really really really want to wash it.

Sometimes I can woo her to the comb by promising a pony tail. She'll sit while I comb her hair and so it's not that bad. But nothing will get her to let us wash it.

I'm tempted to cut it short. She's never had a hair cut because I'm afraid her curls will get cut off an never come back. Also, she does really like pony tails and if I cut it the length needed to keep it clean, that won't be possible any more.

And as a child, my mom decided my hairstyle and I had that same hairstyle until I was 12 and hated it (mostly the bangs). I really want Margaret to get a say in this. Sigh.

What do you do when you want to preserve the autonomy and agency of your children, but you also really don't want to, at least not in the moment?

Ten years from now this struggle will be null and void. Maybe I should just back down and let it be.

Now I've got the Beatles in my head.

...speaking words of wisdom, let it be...


  1. Katelyn6:46 AM

    Hygiene certainly isn't getting hit by a car but I'd be very tempted to group it with safety because it can affect health. I know washing hair isn't much of a health hazard but something like brushing teeth can be. Starting habits or precedents for choice when young will carry over as they get older.

    I understand wanting to teach your children autonomy for their bodies, but I think that sometimes we give young children too many choices. I would probably tell Margaret something to the effect of, "I understand you don't want your hair washed, but it's important to me that you be clean all over." Then I might give her the choice of which gets cleaned first her body or her hair, but they're both getting cleaned. The brushing of the hair wouldn't be a big deal to me.

    Yes, years from now this struggle will be null and void, but another will have taken it's place. Sometimes our voices (as parents concerned for their health and safety not as competing individuals) may outweigh theirs, but as long as their wants have been acknowledged, I personally feel that is okay. You just have to decide what is non-negotiable and stand firm.

    Good luck. I'll acknowledge it was easy for me to say all this not having had to put it into practice with a 3 (almost?) year old. My 6 month old doesn't get many choices.

  2. I haven't thought much past tomorrow about washing my son's hair (he is 1 year old), but why can't Margaret be no-poo? We have intentions of never using shampoo on our son (so far, so good). My husband accomplishes no poo without using anything in his hair at all - just a little water. Granted, Margaret has quite a bit more hair than my husband does... but it seems like an option.

    (you are no-poo, right? Am I remembering incorrectly?)

  3. I think it’s an admirable endeavor, but at the same time I’m not certain that 3 is the age to grant complete autonomy to your children. Respect, yes … autonomy, I’m torn. We give Elliot a lot of choices, which I think teaches him how to be autonomous later … but little ones just aren’t quite ready for all of that responsibility.

    I totally get where you’re coming from with it, but I think taking a middle of the road approach might make it easier on you, and still not stifle Margaret’s wants and needs.

    Also, as kids, adolescence, and adults, there are LOTS of things we HAVE to do in life that we don’t WANT to do … way worse than washing and combing our hair. So I wonder when teaching those lessons will come into play, if they’re not just built in from the start.

    Of course, I say this and I’m one of those Moms that will fix something different for her kid for dinner because it’s just easier … so there’s the grain of salt with which to take my comments. 

  4. This can be a tough issue. My approach is that she has total say over her body except for safety AND hygene of which I consider hair care part of. My daughter (almost 2 yrs) has very long, curley hair, and she often doesn't want it combed, but I won't allow it to go untouched. I do what I can to distract her and make it quick, but it absolutely has to be combed (in the bath with lots of conditioner) and then put in pony or pig tails. If we let it go just one time it becomes even more tangled and hard to comb.

    She's also been resisting baths for a couple of weeks and I'm not sure why because she used to really enjoy them. She also cries getting her teeth brushed. We try to make it as quick as possible, but we consider them things that have to be done just like changing dirty diapers.

  5. Lyndsay- Yes, I No 'Poo and Margaret is No 'Pooed as well- I'm talking about baking soda and ACV here. :) She's a toddler so sometimes sticky things get in her hair and some washing is needed.

    Dorcas- I don't think 3 is too young to teach ideas that will protect them from sexual abuse- which I think bodily autonomy is a big one. Since we're teaching her that other people can't do things to her body or ask her to do things to theirs, I feel hypocritical when my actions are going against my words. Ans statistically, she has more to fear from family members in that regard than strangers, so I want to instill in her that even mommy and daddy don't get to override her autonomy. Not that I think she has to worry about me or McKay in that regard- it's really the principle of the thing.

    I do understand there are things we "have" to do as adults, but I guess the issue I have is the "I'm bigger than you and you have to do this because I said so" idea. Sure, I have to eat as an adult, so consequently I have to prepare dinner, but ultimately the drive to prepare dinner is internal (I cook because I'm hungry) and not because there's an outside force telling me I have to do it. As adults, teens, and children, I want my kids to do things because they internally want to and not because some outside force is working on them. I guess that's where I see the difference- the whole "I'm saying so" part. I don't know if that made sense. I need to do a post on it (I've been meaning to for over a year!)

    Olivia- Margaret went through a bath-resistant phase, too- and she LOVES baths. I don't know. Children just do things like that.

  6. I think she is old enough to give her a simple choice--the same one I give my boys (actually the 10yo still gets this choice). I tell them that their hair needs to look nice, so they have a choice of having it long and combing/washing it, or having it short. My oldest went through a phase (around age 5) where he really wanted it longer... but aside from that they have all opted to have it short. Sometimes very short (when he was 8 my oldest wanted to cut his own hair with the clippers, and did his whole head on the 1/8" setting!).
    I realize she is young, and is liable to choose to have it cut so that she can escape the washing/combing. HOWEVER try to explain it all--that she won't be able to have ponytails either etc. Also, if it comes down to it, let her have it short (after all, you like yours short), and hair will grow. In a couple of years she'll be able to make the choice again.

    When it comes to washing, my kids all have short enough hair that we don't usually bother with shampoo, just a good rinse... (all boys FTW!) BUT my 4yo still hates the rinsing part. I might have let it slide except he was getting crazy wax buildup in his ears and I realized that bath after bath his head wasn't ever getting wet. (oops!) I discovered that rather than making a fight over it, I would ask him if he could do it. "Can you dip your finger in the water? How about your ear? What about your other ear?" and we make a game. He gets (more) clean, and nobody cries.

  7. I read this blog when Hazen woke me up early this am telling me that he had accidentally wet the bed, and I've been thinking about it ever since.

    After he woke me up, he asked if he could just come sleep with me, because he was "coldy coldy", to which I responded, "No, sweetie, we've got to go get you cleaned up, then change the sheets on your bed and get you nice and warm". At first, he resisted, because, hey, it's 530am, and who WANTS to take a bath at that time? However, yeah, I AM, bigger than him, and I say so. Not because I'm a tyrannical mother who wants to ruin lives, but because, at the end of the day, I've got 23 years on him, and I KNOW that taking a quick bath and changing his clothes will make him feel better in the long run than continuing to sleep in pee-stained sheets.

    I agree that it is a very fine line- giving our children autonomy to know that they are capable and allowed to make decisions, however, allowing my 3 1/2 year old to make complete choices over his personal grooming, and even what he eats is something that he's just not mature enough to do at this point. So, we give choices- healthy and safe options, and allow him to decide what he will. Whatever he chooses- I go with, even if it's more of a pain in the ass to me.

    Case in point. "Hazen would you like a snack?" H- Yes, I want some crackers. A- (Knowing that he's had plenty of crackers today, and needs something more nutrient dense) How about you have something else? I can open you a yogurt (Easy for me), or I can cut you an apple (More of a pain)

    If he chooses apple, I absolutely will not try to convince him otherwise. That was HIS choice, and I allowed him to make it, thus giving him a sense of autonomy.

    Holy crap. That was the longest comment ever.

  8. Oh, I meant to add...when I was young (and we're talking up to about age 8 here) I despised having my hair combed. My hair was to my waist at that point--and yes, curly. And it would just be very snarled up and it hurt to comb it out (have you ever had curls? Perhaps you can't fully appreciate how Margaret feels about the experience?) In any case, my mother made the policy that I had to be combed for church, and usually one other day a week when we went somewhere (errands, library, dentist, playdate, whatever)...but the rest of the week she just let it go. Did I mention I was 8?
    Then somewhere around that age I learned how to comb curly hair without hurting myself (starting at the ends and working up, rather than starting at the top), and from then on in I combed my hair myself. *shrug* So part of it was education, but imo part of it was desire and maturity too.

    Something else you might consider is some kind of detangler...even just a few drops of a conditioner on your fingers pulled through her wet hair (or there are natural detanglers on etsy, I have a great one). A little of that will help the hairs separate so that a few 'finger combs' will do and you don't need a big combing ordeal.

  9. Oh boy, when I was about 4 or 4 I had hair down to my waist and my mom wanted to brush it everyday and I just hated it. I finally got it cut which was fine by me but I think everyone liked my long hair. Anyway, being pregnant with a girl this time made me realize that I'm going to be doing this too one day, oh no! :)
    I think it's good you are letting her do what she wants with her hair. My sister in law wanted bangs on her daughter, my niece, and she was very insistent that she didn't want it. But of course they got it anyway. I just can't imagine not letting my daughter decide what she wants. But maybe when she's a five year old screaming like me everytime my mom brushed it I'll think again.

  10. If part of your hesitation to force hair burshing on Margaret is that you don't want to say, "It needs to be done just because I say so," I wonder if there are some reasources out their that teach hygene for kids, including hair care. I'm thinking there has to be books or videos that can make it fun and educational. We've been showing our daughter vids of kids brusing their teeth and playing a silly song to help her get over hating it so much.

  11. Cassie- that reminds me of a friend whose hair was such a point of conflict with her mother that to this day, she struggles with how to do her hair because it represents all the issues she had with her mother. Hair can be a great point of identity and personality for a person.

    Everyone else- how do your kids navigate the issues of "It's ok when someone makes me do this but not that?"

  12. I think that there is a HUGE difference between everyone else vs Mommy and Daddy. I would be totally ok with Hazen not wanting to have a bath given by say, a babysitter, if it was something he wasn't comfortable with. To be honest, I don't think I'll ever put him in the situation where someone other than family is bathing him, but that's kind of besides that point.

    Am I reading into it correctly that your #1 concern with this issue is the issue with sexual abuse? I think that there are such STARK differences between washing hair, brushing teeth, going to school, eating veggies, and allowing someone to touch your private parts.

    A question for you- How do you plan on tackling the whole giving autonomy issue, while still maintaining that your kids are respectful and polite? I am SO into making sure that Hazen has a safe environment to grow, have fun, play, and have his own strong little personality, but at the same time, he knows that it is absolutely not ok to use disrespectful words and spit or hit. One could argue that spitting or screaming "NO", is just him asserting his right to have an opinion, but I view it as, I am raising him to be a productive, communicating member of society, and unfortunately sometimes we don't all get our way, so we have to suck it up and deal. Does that make sense? I might have really strayed from this entire topic, but man, thanks for getting my mind going today!

  13. I'd be really interested in a post talking about how you are teaching bodily autonomy in terms of protecting against sexual abuse. It is a real area of concern.

    I imagine that teaching could involve the specific areas of the body and not encompass the body entirely ... therefore leaving room for grooming things like face and hand washing, nail clipping, hair washing/combing, etc.

    With things like baths and hair washing I have always just taken the stance of "this is what we do" not so much coming from a place of "I'm bigger than you ... you do as I say."

    Because, honestly, I really feel like I can't *make* my toddler do what he doesn't want to do, you know?

  14. Eve will let Daddy rinse her hair (we don't shampoo much) but not me... and she brushes her own hair now... but she's a year older than Margaret. Also she has straight hair, so we get away with much more.

    I tell the story about how the fairies come in the night and play in her hair to make knots and how we have to get them out (I don't have a reason why...)

    I don't know the answer. I feel the same as you, I don't want to force her to cut/wash/brush her hair if she doesn't want to... because it was something I hated growing up. I still don't wear my hair down much and I put it down to my mum insisting on us having our hair tied back tightly as children.

    Persistence in asking at the same time/point in routine normally works for most things for us.

    And my kids LOVE to brush their teeth. I've never done it for them as littlies... just let them watch me and do their own... when Eve turned 3 I started asking if I could brush the back teeth for her, which makes her giggle for some reason! They both have perfect teeth fwiw. Maybe the hair thing will pan out in the same way for you if you just keep on xxx

  15. Katelyn2:27 PM

    I feel like an explanation of "just because I say so" or "because I'm bigger" comes from a place of exerting "my" will or whim merely because I am able. There's no thought out reason behind the order. I don't view washing hair in those terms. Yes, hair can be a personal statement, but I'd be hard pressed to say that Margaret is specifically deciding to have dirty hair as a form of self expression (I think there's another underlying reason she doesn't want it wash.)

    I don't have a problem with parents insisting on things that are in the best interests of their children (safety, hygiene, health) I would include things like bathing and eating healthy foods not just cookies and not running out into the street.

    I think teaching children how to protect themselves from sexual abuse through bodily autonomy can be done without submitting completely to the whim of a 3 year old who does not fully understand yet what is best for her.

  16. I think I'm going to have to put together another post addressing some of the questions and thoughts here- and other thoughts I've had that this discussion has spurred! So much. How about for an Inquisition Monday? :)

    As for teeth- I never really pushed it, Margaret just likes brushing them, though I've had to direct her a few times for her to get that she's supposed to actually brush them, not suck on the tooth brush!

  17. How does reasoning with her work? Does she know about the natural consequence of not keeping care of hair? Have you described the plan of action if she doesn't allow it? She then has a choice to make then. Its a good thing she is verbal and can be reasoned with.

    I'm at the same point with Belle but she's pre-verbal. I haven't yet resorted to a hair cut but know that its a viable option if we still have sad times with combing. Belle, I'm glad, likes to wash her hair and I find that using conditioner is all she needs to detangle and keep her hair clean. That makes combing much easier.

  18. I'm not sure I entirely understand the issue here.

    Life is full of subtleties--there is not one true law on every subject that is used every time. Like spelling for example, my son is five and learning to read and spell. I've taught him the rule "the 'silent e' on the end makes the vowel say it's name." He get's it except that sometimes the e on the end doesn't make the vowel say it's name and sometimes the vowel says it's name when there is no "silent e." So that is the spelling rule most of the time.

    I've also taught my son the rule that "we scream at the park, not inside." But if he goes to the gymnastics plus gym he actually is allowed to scream inside. The rule only stands for most situations.

    So I think the same should probably apply for bodily autonomy rules as well. You already have said that you make an exception for safety--I agree with those that would say hygiene should be in there too.

    It seems to me that teaching that full body autonomy is essential to prevent sexual abuse doesn't completely mesh with your stance about breasts being over-sexualized in society. Teaching a child that anytime a person touches any part of your body without your permission is sexual abuse, seems to me to be oversexualizing the entire body.

    I just don't think it's that cut and dry.

  19. i too wanted to instill in my daughters that nobody can ever make them do anything they want..not a teacher, nobody, and i've always backed them up. at the same time, we had rules--screaming outside, wearing clean clothes, teeth brushed twice per day, homework done first and, as someone else pointed out, hair looking nice.

    my older daughter did NOT want her hair brushed EVER and i have her the choice of having long hair (which meant brushing everyday) or short. at age 2, she chose short. and then at age 6 she chose long. my younger daughter hated sitting still but wanted long hair. it wasn't that much of a struggle. plus, the definition of "good" can be fluid...

    as far as how i deal with them maintaing their autonomy when i don't want to, i look to see if their decision will have any negative permanent affect (effect?) on their lives. no, you cannot get a tattoo (she did anyway). yes, you must take the SATs. yes, you must go to seminary.

    they are 15 and 18 and while it could be better, it could be worse.

  20. I think there was a jump that since I don't force-wash Margaret's hair, that we don't have rules. We definitely do work with her to use inside voices, not poke Isaac all day, waiting to nurse while I finish something up, etc. I don't put those things under bodily autonomy. Well, the poking Isaac thing is a bodily autonomy thing for him.

  21. I was at this website reading the article "Thank you for menstruating" and this article caught my eye as well:

    I thought it was sort of similar to what you're saying in this post, about respecting your kids as people.

  22. Explain to her why you want to clean/comb her hair... "Would you like me to clean/comb your hair? Or do you want your hair to get dirty/tangled?" There are natural consequences to each and every choice we make. Our role as parents are to let our children know what those consequences are, and help them make those choices that will result in their happiness. *B

  23. i did not at _all_ mean to infer that you have no rules. so very sorry if that's what you understood from my post. interesting how a recent assignment at work is on communicating effectively...

  24. dcr- I'm probably throwing on my own issues as well. I get the "You don't have rules!?!" reaction a lot and I have to re-explain and re-explain, so I'm probably being defensive as well. :) Darn this Internet! It makes the world smaller, but not small enough that we can actually talk in person!

  25. Heather, you are person of great integrity. I think this post, and your struggle, and your comments show how careful you are to act in harmony with your beliefs.

    If you value bodily autonomy over hygiene, I think that's great. I don't think that any harm will come to Margaret because she chose not to have her hair washed or combed: not germs and not behavioral problems. If I know you, you'll attack those issues when they actually are issues and you will do them compassionately, in a way that is consistent with your beliefs.

    I salute you!

  26. I think what it boils down to is respect. You treat your child with respect, but also respect that they are, in fact, a child, and don't understand the importance of somethings, or that they are unable to do somethings themselves, and it is our job to care for them. You can't let your child get in the way of taking care of them.

    You are a mindful parent that gives your child plenty of opportunities for autonomy, which is so good for her. But you also have to recognize what she is ready for, and what she isn't.

    I would just explain to her why it's important for her hair to be washed and that you have to do it. And empathize with her.

  27. So glad to have found this post! (Thanks to Dionna at Code Name: Mama)

    I posted something very similar recently about my 7 year old and the same issues. I agree with you completely. We were finally able to use some of the suggestions in the comments to find a way to comb it in the tub while slathered with conditioner so that it didn't hurt. I don't make her brush it outside of that. It is a huge relief to both of us.

    Mine felt more secure in the tub if I got in there with them and let them rest their head on my stomach while rinsing so that their necks didn't get sore leaning back, and no water went near their eyes.

  28. Just wanted to clarify that I see nothing wrong with what you are doing. The statements I made are general and open to interpretation. I believe we just have to rely on our intuition a lot. Sometimes I feel like I'm kayaking through rapids...I don't know my exact course of action until the split second before. And then I have to take into account my child's response and recalculate. It's so not cut and dry.

    And as for the hair issue in general...maybe it depends on the kid, I don't know, but if I don't brush my child's hair regularly, he'll get nasty cradle-cap type stuff on his scalp, so I do consider it a hygiene issue. We rarely wash his hair, mostly it just gets rinsed when he takes a shower.

  29. I haven't read all the comments, and I don't know how old Margaret is, but I can say this sounds a lot like our home, and don't worry - this shall pass.

    Our oldest is 4 and when she was little (and bald) we just used a washcloth, but around 2 she refused to allow us to wash her hair. At first we tried forcing, but that felt wrong and resulted in distance, so we stopped. With our second, now 2.5 we never forced washing, but sometimes highly encourage brushing (about once every couple of weeks).

    Our 4 yr old now washes her own hair willingly, when it's dirty, or she chooses to - about once a month. She also allows us to brush it whenever we ask.

    In the meantime all we did is brush when possible and wash the ends in the sink if they got dirty. we also warned her if an activity might get her hair dirty so she could choose to do it or not. we also suggested that if she had a ponytail, her hair would need washing less often. She choose to sit through brushing and getting her hair pulled up over washing.

    We'll continue the same way with our 2yr old. only really pushing to brush when the options are either brush now or the curls are gone. She likes her curls so will brush to keep them. I'm sure one day she will also happily wash and brush - as long as everything stays positive.

  30. Now that I've read all these comments, I guess my main question is - why do you want to brush her hair? I ask this question because my own answer is a bit shameful - even if it makes them cry, I brush my kids hair, because I am afraid others will think I'm neglectful. Hair seems like one of those things that we think is more important than it is.

    I'm thinking of solving the problem by taking the kids brush shopping for their own brush. Maybe even find some wood ones and let them paint their and cover it with stickers. Then we can sing a hair brushing song (I'll make one up) and all brush our hair together. But that still leaves the reality that I have decided that tangled hair is a reflection on me as a parent. It's something worth exploring.

    Connor has also been going through a phase where he doesn't want his nightly bath anymore. You know, the one he's had almost every night for 5 years. I picked up some books on hygiene and showed him how monsters take a bath and why. I think it helped him to see this wasn't something mom was just making up. I also have certain toys that are just for bath or shower time. It's been making it easier. I try to let it be his choice but sometimes he'll go for days and then he stinks, so we're trying to find a middle ground here. Yes, you need to take a bath. Yes, you can also wash yourself with your very own scrubby, and here's a cup to rinse off with when you are done.

  31. Awesome post! We went to the zoo on Wednesday and saw a dad with his two daughters (I think!) there. The whole family had long dreadlocks!

    Washing of hair is definitely a personal hygiene issue open to interpretation. For some, it will mean daily washing (or more!); for others it will mean once a week or month or even year. As long as there are no communicable critters living there, do whatever you feel compelled to do; be that to let her not wash/comb or set a time frame for how often it is done. At our house, I only require hair washing on our Sabbath prep day (Saturday). Everyone gets their nails trimmed after Saturday baths with complete scrubbing of body parts and shampooing (soda/ACV). The girls get their hair "done" for church, but they like it when I do their hair. Other days of the week I don't care. In fact, right now both girls have braids that are falling out that are left from Wednesday. I do require their hair to be combed nicely before we leave the house (which isn't very often). I usually pull the girls hair back or up somehow before leaving so that it is easier to manage (not as much static putting it in their face, etc.).


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