I have unique children.
It struck me again last week on our road trip when Matthew was willing to out himself as such on a few different occasions. One day, after attending the Science Centre the day before and purchasing a t-shirt, he wore a largish, oval, 'glow-in-the-dark' sticker from the t-shirt on his forehead for the entire day. The next day it was a pair of banana stickers that decorated his eyebrows for the better part of a day. He certainly drew curious looks, but was oblivious to them all - he was just enjoying having the stickers that he liked close to him. But perhaps the most interesting adornment of choice was the orange mesh bag that he wore on his head one day - the mesh that had enclosed the tiny oranges that we polished off. He happily capped himself with the mesh pulled down low over his forehead and was totally ok with the look. He wasn't actually trying to be different or to draw attention to himself...I honestly don't think it even dawned on him that others might be looking at him. He was simply being himself, and his mama chose to let him be despite her own private feelings of misgiving as she saw the looks he garnered.
This is the same boy who spent our entire six-day vacation wearing the same pair of socks every day, even though both heels had holes in them, even though one entire set of five toes peeked out of a gaping hole on the other end. And he delighted in those socks, declining a fresh pair after swims and showers and proclaiming that they fit him perfectly and that they were soft and comfy from the days of wearing.
Should I care about these things? Well, to be honest, I do care, but what I'm really wondering if I should be doing something about these things? I really question myself at times. I have friends whose children are beautifully, or least neatly, dressed for all occasions, and have neatly trimmed hair - and they look lovely to me and sometimes I long for that, too.
Seeing Matthew this week with the stickers and the socks and, most strikingly, the mesh bag, reminded me of a conversation I had just a couple of weeks ago with friends about the face that we and our children present to the world. How much do these things matter? Really and truly. The fact is that we will be judged by what we look like and what we wear; and no doubt this factors into the decision many parents make about how their children will dress. We will be judged if we're wearing too much makeup, dress in goth, wear exclusively pants with holes in our knees, are fat, wear too much clothing or too little clothing, are brown- or white-skinned, have facial piercings or body tattoos, whatever the difference from the norm...we all garner judgment by how we look and by what we wear.
As a society, we do judge a book by its cover. Despite saying that we shouldn't, we do. We look at those around us and we see their sum total as being the person reflected on the outside, even though we know better and even though we all crave to be judged by what's on the inside. We are all mask wearers, and we are all judged for them.
The question is: How much should this matter? I really don't have the right answer to this question. I know how I am choosing to address this with my children, but I don't know if I'm doing the right thing.
When I was a child, I was forced to wear dresses to church, and my clothes never had holes in them. My mother dressed us well, for the most part - mostly in clothes that she had made herself for us kids. As a teen, I wore mostly store-bought clothes, and often felt pressured to look and dress a certain way (whether by family or friends). I remember often walking out the front door to meet up with friends and my mother coming to the door to say good-bye and asking, with wrinkled nose, "you're going to wear that?" Frequently she would offer a suggestion of a piece of clothing that she would prefer for me to wear. I don't think ill of her for that - in fact, I think that was a pretty common thing in those days...perhaps it still is.
But here's the thing. I don't recall ever changing my clothes at her request in those moments; what I remember is answering more defiantly, and with apparent conviction that I was totally fine with what I was wearing and I left the house as I was.
But the further truth is that her comments did bother me, despite my attitude on the face of it. Despite the mask I wore. I remember the insecurity of being out in those clothes that my mom (or others) didn't approve of and doubting myself and my own choices.
I understand, as a mother myself now, that we might prefer our kids to portray a certain image - perhaps one that we ourselves are comfortable with and perhaps one that we feel best reflects us as parents.
Every single time I see Lizzie wearing one of her mis-matched outfits in public; when I see Matthew walking around, oblivious, with an orange mesh bag over his head; when I see Seth exiting the house with jeans sporting a wear-and-tear hole in those jeans he loves so much day after day after day; when I see Matthew's ever-lengthening, shaggy mess of hair...ever. single. time I see these things I am tempted to comment. Tempted to ask them to please go and change their clothes, to please go and cut their hair, to please take the mesh bag off. And every. single. time I remember the feeling of walking out the front door feeling just a little disapproved of, and know how that disapproval began to accumulate over time (of my own making, after a while) into what I now know to be part of my own baggage and mass of insecurities. And so I deliberately close my mouth in front of my children, smile, and choose to run my fingers through that crazy hair, comment on Lizzie's growing fashion sense, and tell Seth that he must be playing hard these days to warrant those knee holes. Slowly, painfully at times, I am learning with closed mouth to accept and appreciate my children for the unique, different-than-me children that they are. I don't know if others will view them (or me) the same way - I rather doubt it because of our tendency to judge a book by its cover - but I choose this.
Thus, instead of battling on premise of the clothes issue as I used to, I have reduced to very few the clothing/hair rules in our household over the past two years. My kids dress themselves, with very few exceptions or rules. The exceptions might include the day we get photos taken; what we wear to church on Sundays (no sweats; clean clothes); and bigger occasion-type of events (eg. Christmas). And I ask that Matthew comb his mop of hair before leaving the house...which frankly makes little difference once the fingers follow the path of the comb.
Where's the line? When do we require certain 'uniforms' of our children as a sign of respect for the place we are going, the people we will meet? How much do we need to care about the impression we (and our children) leave with others? Is how our children dress a reflection of their parents and, if so, how much (if at all) should that matter? What, if anything, do we need to teach our children about the perceptions people will have of them based on how they present themselves? At what point do we simply let go of those things and let the chips fall where they may?
I'd so love your thoughts as I muddle through these questions.