As a woman who married a man with luscious long locks due to a preference for long hair on men, I didn’t think much of it when my eldest son wanted his hair long like dads. The first time a random passerby in the supermarket called him a girl on accident, I was rather taken by surprise. I personally had never associated long hair with women, in fact men with long hair have always conjured up images of Vikings, knights, and other romantic, manly sorts. Then the stories my husband told of his youth came flooding in as I remember the teasing and ridicule he endured all through his younger years for the same long and beautiful hair that later won him many a fair lady. All of the above led me to wonder if I was doing the right thing letting my son leave his hair long. I mean, he wanted it that way, but at the same time, I was the parent, right? If it was in his best interest to have it short, shouldn’t I cut it?
No. In all my motherly worry, I had forgotten my own childhood. I too was teased. Everyone I know was teased at one point or another. Children are as cruel as they are innocent and truthful. Long hair or short this fact will remain an undeniable truth of youth. In the end, I left my angelic boy’s curls intact, and he has been called a girl more times than I can count as a result by everyone from doctors to school mates.
It wasn’t until he was in kindergarten that I realized that times have changed, and the typical schoolyard banter of my childhood may pale in comparison to what my children will face. It started with a few innocent calls from the nurse saying he’d peed his pants. It was his first year of elementary, though he did have 2 years of preschool, so at first, I thought nothing of it, but it continued. Soon they began to claim he was playing in the bathroom and just not going pee, and that, was just not like my kid. Previously when I’d asked him what the problem was he said that he just was forgetting to use the bathroom. There was just so much to learn and do at big kid school. However, when I explained the teacher felt he was playing in the bathroom and was considering a punishment for him (needing a bathroom buddy) the truth came out.
Older boys had been preventing him from using the bathroom. I listened to my 6 year old explain that he was not allowed to use the boys bathroom, because he was a girl. I asked him if he believed that, and he said no, and very matter-of-factly that he had a penis, he was a boy, but that these kids were bigger than him. I was blown away. He was 6. He was in elementary. What sort of elementary school kids would do that to a kindergartener? I was very unamused to find my son had told the nurse and his teacher older boys weren’t letting him use the bathroom, and they assumed it was a one-time deal and instead felt it proper to blame him, to punish him.
It was then that we realized the answer was still not to cut our sons hair. It was not to teach him that conformity was the best way to avoid confrontation. The answer was to teach him to be confident in who he was and stand up for who he is, no matter who the challenger is. We did not want our son to think that anytime someone else didn’t like something about him, he should change it.
We started by educating him. By showing him that the stereotype surrounding boys with long hair in modern times was wrong. For the Egyptians, Scandinavians, and Romans, long hair was a sign of wealth and power, that’s why in several of these cultures slaves were forced to shave their heads and children were kept bald. This trend also held true in Europe, where the shorter the hair, the lower social rank of the bearer. Long hair was often thought to be a privilege of free men. In Asia, cutting your hair was actually a form of punishment and a mark of dishonor. The Native Americans also associated hair length with honor and strength. In fact, pretty much every society on earth once felt long-haired men were somehow superior. This is likely tied to the biological association with hair health and actual health, or ability to reproduce and survive, anthropologically speaking. So, why exactly is having longhair now enough to get a young boy banned from a bathroom? War. That’s right, the trend of men wearing shorthair was a result of war.
The short-hair-war connection is twofold. First, lice and other hair-based yuckies were common during World War I, and not having hair was a serious help with that. Second, that historical tie to servitude translated to updated symbolism of discipline. It’s no surprise then by the ‘60s long hair was a symbol of rebellion. What was once a social-must suddenly was associated with laziness, drug use, and a disregard for the law. And here we are, 50 years later, still holding on to that concept that to be a “man” you must have short hair. What did my 6 year old think of this history lesson and the end result? He said, “Well, that’s stupid. I’m a Viking!”
That’s right, kiddo, it’s stupid.
I haven’t gotten a call from the school nurse since. I know that we can’t protect our kids from the stupid ideals of society any more than we can shelter them from childhood bullying, but I’m glad at least in the case of the long-hair little boy, we’ve instilled a bit of rebellious confidence and learned that knowledge is the most effective weapon against bullies.