WASHINGTON-My kids are attending a new Catholic school this year and at the annual fall picnic I was shocked to see that unlike their previous school which did not permit boys to wear their hair in braided styles, this school does. Don’t get me wrong, I come from a country and culture where braids, plaits, twists and cornrows are common among girls. I keep my 2-year old daughter’s hair in tiny plaits. I do not really like it on boys, however. It’s just a personal preference. I have always been of the opinion that conservative straight-laced no frills styles in the hair and uniforms are best for a learning environment. I can’t help it as I am a conservative.
I am not alone, however, Research supports the benefits of children wearing uniforms. Also, with all the focus being on bullying these days following a string of suicides by young people who were bullied in schools, uniforms eliminate the possibility of a child being picked on based on her clothes. Other benefits of uniforms include: 1. school officials and truancy police being able to easily recognize students belonging to a certain school; 2. administrators having an easier time policing what children wear and determining what is appropriate and what is not; 3. reducing incidences of snobbery which allows kids to concentrate more on their education and less on what they will wear the next day to fit in; and 4. instilling a sense of discipline, pride and community belonging among students.
Certainly, uniforms do not solve all of a school’s problems as other studies have pointed out and no doubt several public and charter schools that have uniform policies in certain economically depressed areas still have to deal with insufficient parental involvement, limited resources, and a lack of academic preparedness among their student population. Despite what some have pointed out about how uniforms do not eliminate school violence nor solve all the dilemmas facing schools today, there is little doubt that a uniform policy can indeed take one distraction out of the equation while schools work on fixing the other problems.
After then President Bill Clinton delivered a 1996 State of the Union where he expressed frustration over an increase of crime related to expensive shoes and clothing that was plaguing the nation in the late 1990s, he issued an order instructing the Secretary of Education to send a School Uniform manual to all state school systems. The manual provided examples and guidance on implementing uniform policies to all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
I was very happy to see that initiative. There is room for individual expression on weekends and during play…or if you are the child of a celebrity. Willow Smith, daughter of actors Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith is sporting a pretty wicked Mohawk these days. The 8-years old, not only is a recording artist signed to hip hop mogul Jay Z’s The Roc Nation record label, but she also has a pretty eccentric and unconventional taste in clothing. Her kid-friendly pop-rock hit “Whip My Hair” has been well received nationwide. Similarly, ex-Spice Girl and Dancing with the Stars finalist turned reality-tv show TV Star, Melanie Brown’s daughters 11-year old Phoenix and 3 year old Angel Iris wear shaved heads and Mohawks on her reality show, The Mel B Project on the Style network.
Seeing girls wearing non-traditional hairstyles that historically have been linked to the rebellious and anarchist garb of punk rockers is not surprising for those in the Hollywood limelight. However, more and more these days, regular non-celeb girls are donning similar styles and heading to schoolyards near you. Last spring was the first time I noticed a 7-year old boy in my son’s class wearing a mohawk hairstyle and I learned quickly thereafter that it is indeed a trend.
The concept of wearing outrageous and unconventional hairstyle is certainly not new, of course. When I was in college in the early 1990s, many considered dreadlocs in the hair a political statement because the style, which requires the hair to be twisted into locs sealed with beeswax and grown out, was worn by those who practiced Rastafarianism. Others wore them to express their outrage towards the establishment, corporate culture and mainstream ism which they deemed as oppressive. Some families even locked their young children’s fine virgin hair, sometimes for cultural reasons. Since then locs or locks, as they are called for short, have become adopted into mainstream, are accepted even in corporate environments and certainly they do not carry the same political message and stigma as before. However, I dare say there is still a large faction of older Americans and conservative types that still view the style as bearing some anti-establishment weight. Other nontraditional styles have come in and out of fashion over the years. For example, in years past, it was common for children in some parts of the country to wear a small tuft of hair or a long braided “tail” at the nape of their neck or for young African American children to have designs shaved into their heads.
But the thing is, I have been noticing that is does not stop with hair. An 8-year old girl who plays with my son’s soccer team has a tiny tattoo behind her ear which I thought was a birthmark until I saw her matching tattoo on her leg. I am still hoping it was one of those stick on tattoos. But I have seen stories about parents who really allow their young children to get tattoos. Similarly with piercings, in many cultures, it is common for people to pierce their young baby’s and daughter’s ears. I was nagged incessantly by many around me for not piercing my daughter’s ears by 6months old until I got tired and finally succumbed to the pressure. These days, you expect to see one set of piercings on the ears alone. Multiple ear piercings are no longer in vogue among teenagers and neither is getting the nose and tongue pierced. However, what is in fashion more and more is getting the bottom lip pierced and it will only be a matter of time before more teenagers are running out and getting lip piercings behind their parents’ backs.
Most of these styles are reflections of personal style and tastes and kids’ attempts to keep up with the latest trends. Usually, nothing more. Most times, children wearing extreme dress and hair is also about the parents letting their children express themselves. Children, for the most part I believe, are not making a political statement about anarchy or anti-establishment when they or their parents let them wear their hair a certain way or wear certain clothing. I recognize that older children may let pop culture or the music they listen to guide their choice of clothing and sometimes the musical influence has political under or overtones.
But for the most part, outrageous and extreme modes of dress worn at such a young age would not eliminate a child’s chances of getting a job or being accepted in a club. The most harm they would cause is a trip to the principal’s office if the style is against the school dress code or a few stares in the mall as they pass by. Many do it for attention anyway. It’s a lot different from the more common dress and style associated with hip hop culture which would more likely get a kid tagged as a criminal in many contexts but that is another conversation and post for another day. And I won’t even go into the recent story of 45-year old Kenneth Bonds who got into a shouting match with a young black boy in Tennessee over his decision to wear his pants below his bottom and ended up shooting the young man after the conversation escalated.
Parents should be able to depart the lesson that unconventional expression is good. It shouldn’t matter if someone rejects you because they do not value your taste in dress or the way you wear your hair so long as you wouldn’t want to be associated with that person or group anyway. However, parents should also teach their children that there are circumstances and situations when it is not okay to let it all out there. There are situations when they should care that mainstream styles are encouraged and/or expected such as on a job, in a social club, or during an interview for a school or college admission. Parents can’t get carried away in letting children display their personal tastes and not teach them they need to conform at times. Most parents know that lesson already and I am hopeful that they also impart that wisdom on their wicked funky-dressed freshly “Mohawked” children in turn.
We can’t all be rock stars… even if we want so much to!
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