Hairdresser Lessons

I needed some advice about parenting the other day so I went to my most reliable source – the woman who cuts my hair.

Now, if I were a truly new age man I would say “hairdresser” but the fact is that she doesn’t dress my hair, she cuts it, and well.

Like most exclusively healthy relationships, it is one that has developed free of the onerous obligations and restraints of daily life. I show up, she trims my hair, I give her some money. We’re both satisfied. It’s a relationship that works.

What we talk about each month as she clips away is our children; not that we share any, but hers, and mine. We talk about how it is a struggle to be parent these days, that even when you think you’re doing the right thing it can turn out wrong, how a complex modern world, while protecting children from the risks we see, may expose them to dangers we never know.

We talk about the old days, how we banged around in our respective youths, making the mistakes that humans make before they know which end is up. She acknowledges a wild early chapter in her own narrative and wonders, as we Boomers will, whether to share with her children that a backward glance would reveal errors much greater than their own. Like most of us, she had lived, and learned. She said she thought that kids today are overprotected and so they don’t learn things; a fine parental net is extended around children and the net catches kids before they can experience the firm thump that will wake them up. I thought this an insight worthy of a Harvard ethnosociologist, and chimed in that when I was young for five years I rode my bicycle across the seamier parts of town to football practice at the local field, and during those years I pedaled around, through and sometimes over dangerous situations. Each day involved the assessment of risk and the deployment of strategies to handle risk, and over the years this process formed an integral part of my character, such as it is.

Just this week a law was passed in New York requiring children to wear helmets as they ride scooters. Sounds like a good thing, considering the fragility of the human skull and the impetuousness of Gotham’s drivers. The problem is that research has shown that bicycle helmet laws have vastly reduced the time kids spend on bikes. When a child is presented with the option of parading past his friends on the streetcorner with a huge glistening egg-shaped object adorning his skull versus reclining as he absorbs the latest MTV video he will invariably choose the latter, much to the detriment of his cardio-vascular conditioning. In this case, as in many others, the very effort to protect children from a short-term risk may expose them to greater long-term dangers.

Years ago, during my tenure as a protective social worker for a contract agency of the Department of Social Services I had to think about the both delicate and devastating decision to remove a child from his family. Once removed from his family, the consequences of this event will probably form the central psychological and emotional issue for the rest of a child’s life. While there are foster parents with the moral character of Mother Theresa – I have met them – there are also those who believe that six foster kids can purchase an easy life, and while the chance that a child removed from his home will then find his way to a warm, supportive, permanent, consistently loving environment that will see him through the long haul of life is slightly better than that of winning the Lottery, it is not better by a wide margin. The public is often understandably upset when they discover later that a child was exposed to risk by remaining in an unstable family; but when the uncertain danger of remaining is balanced against the certain danger of removal, the equation becomes much more complicated. Children themselves don’t much care whether they are scalded by a frying pan or a fire.

The problem is that human development, spiritual, physiological and emotional, happens only when the boundaries of an individual are stretched, when experience occurs that is beyond the common ken, when the comfortable regime of sameness is overthrown by the sometimes terrifying dominance of the strange. Whether Johnny goes to Camp MumboJumbo for two weeks or embarks on an exploratory journey down the Amazon, it is when he is exposed to healthy – that means not deadly – risk that he comes home a different, bigger person.

Basic training for the armed services used to offer just such a situation of controlled risk, back before everyone learned that the training officers can’t hit you and the pools are not deep enough for you to drown. Twenty five years ago I jumped out of an airplane 3000 feet up and for an infinity of split seconds before the rip cord pulled and caught I knew the immensely rejuvenating experience of certain death followed close by quick redemption. Every cell in my cerebrum screamed “Don’t jump! This is insane!” but, sheep that I am, I did. I had time to tumble head down before the big curtain flopped open, jerking me upright again. It was a blast.

Brain research shows that the right hemisphere, the “novelty” hemisphere, is most active during new experiences, and the responsibility for cerebral management shifts to the left hemisphere as the activity becomes more routinized. When I feebly plunk single keys on the piano my right hemisphere is glowing like a pinball machine, but when Stravinsky races through the 88’s the right is dark, and the left hemisphere is calmly burning.

Brain development itself requires a high level of novel experiences; new, strange things blaze neuronal pathways that would otherwise be left unformed. Interestingly the right hemisphere is also associated with negative emotional states, and the left with positive. This says something about the natural offensiveness of the odd.

The other way we screw up kids, my hairdresser said, is by anticipating their needs and giving them what they want before they have a chance to struggle for it. Johnny mentions at the dining room table that he thinks it might be cool to play the trumpet? The next afternoon the gleaming $500 instrument is in his hands, and by the one after that he has realized that distance between sounding like an angry goose and sounding like Wynton Marsalis is covered with pain. The parents yell at the kid to practice for six months before giving up, and the trumpet joins all the other momentary fantasies deep in a closet.

The key, she said, is that over-involvement and overprotection can be as dangerous as neglect. It takes a strong parent to let a child struggle his way to self-knowledge. Kids, bless their hearts, will find their way to the risks they know they need to develop. All we big people can do is guide, and pray.