How young is too young for dyed hair?
April 8, 2014 2:00 PM   Subscribe

My son is 12, and he's set on dying his hair jet black. I'm not sure what reasons I should give if I tell him no, or what consequences may arise if I tell him yes. I'm hoping to hear from some of you with experience raising, teaching, or being a child like this.

My first impulse was to say "no" because he's too young, but then I wondered what age had to do with hair color. I also don't think black hair would look good on him - his hair is normally light brown - but again, it's his hair. We don't go to church or any other function that requires anything more formal than jeans without holes, so I typically don't interfere with his appearance as long as he's covered, clean, and weather-appropriate. So I can't think of any rational objections.

My concern about saying "yes" is the response he might get from his teachers and classmates. I've asked another question about him recently (I am having such a hard time with impending-teenagerdom), and this situation has been improved somewhat by moving him (willingly) to a smaller school that emphasizes technology. He's doing better academically, but is still struggling socially. I don't want his new teachers to write him off as a delinquent or . . . satanist - I don't know? . . . and I don't want to exacerbate his existing alienation. He's already sartorially inclined towards the Hot Topic aesthetic: black clothing, boots, fingerless gloves, and so forth. (His English teacher told me, not that enthusiastically, that "He's definitely part of a subculture!")

I was like this as well in high school, and I started dying my hair a clearly artificial color when I was 15, but I wouldn't hold my experience up as an exemplar. We are, and I was, in a pretty conservative area, so there's that to consider.

But when I told him my concerns, he accused me of trying to control his identity to please other people, which I totally was. I just can't tell anymore if that's a bad thing or a parent thing. I want to let him express himself, but I also want him to know that the superficial assumptions other people make about you can affect how they treat you, regardless of how shallow that sounds.

Right now, I'm leaning towards letting him do so, although he would have to use his money to get it professionally done. But considering my first response was a strong "no," I'd like to hear any other perspectives.
posted by bibliowench to Human Relations (80 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If he's got everything else going towards this subculture, clothing-wise, then I can't imagine that the teachers will be more or less inclined to write him off based just on hair.

Why would he need to have it professionally done? A quick home dye would probably fade faster, save you all money and time in the long wrong, and be easier to move past if he decides he doesn't want it after all.
posted by RainyJay at 2:04 PM on April 8, 2014 [16 favorites]

Hair grows back. Other kids will make fun of anything that stands out, so to let a teen or preteen own the aspect that gets the bullying is a nod to their flourishing independence. Make it a reward for some kind of good behavior -- a healthy report card, or an annoying chore that needs doing. Is there a rule in the school handbook against "unnatural" hair coloring?

And yeah, you can do this with a box of standard women's hair dye available for $5 at your local drugstore. No need for the professional dye job. Be more concerned that he doesn't get dye all over the house in the process. Help him out, even if discreetly; get him protective sheets and show him how to wipe stray dye drops from his skin. He may squirm, but he will appreciate it.
posted by theraflu at 2:05 PM on April 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

You haven't really articulated even a half decent reason to say no here.

Considering some of the stupid looking shit I see daily on children I think you should let him dye his hair black and give a sigh of relief that he isn't doing something more permanent. Basically just like the pseudo goth look you describe him as having, this is just another thing he is going to cringe about when he remembers it at age 34.

I suspect you are really overthinking the possible responses to him dying his hair. Also I don't know where you get the idea that if he dyes his hair he will be viewed as a delinquent or a satanist, that's just crazy talk.
posted by Sternmeyer at 2:07 PM on April 8, 2014 [35 favorites]

Ultimately dying his hair is a harmless exercise, and he will live the consquences of his decision. Teachers & classmates make fun of him? He'll learn a good lesson about people who judge others based on what they look like. And likely a lesson about empathy.

Just check in with yourself to make sure that it is not really you who is judging him, for wearing black clothing and appearing to be part of a subculture (ugh - subculture is a mindset, regardless of what clothing you wear).

Keep the lines of communication open with him about any negative experiences he has with others, and help him process those experiences without adding your own judgement (i.e. active listening).

Showing him that you are willing to allow him autonomy over his own body, and that you trust him to make good decisions about his body will grow trust between the two of you.
posted by vignettist at 2:11 PM on April 8, 2014 [18 favorites]

Let me tell you a little story: when I was around that age I (a gothy, geeky girl attending Catholic school and itching for rebellion) desperately wanted to shave most of my hair off and dye the rest of it black. My dad hated this idea but he let me do it. His reasoning was if he didn't let me do it I'd be angry and probably go ahead with it behind his back anyway, and he figured if he gave me permission then this form of "rebellion" would lose the appeal pretty quickly.

Well, he was right. I shaved it off, dyed it, and promptly got bored with the whole idea. I grew it out and had normal hair for the next (almost) two decades**.

**Amusingly I'm now 33 years old and half of my head is shaved, the other half partially dyed purple. My dad thinks this is hilarious. I guess some interests never truly die out. However, he still hasn't gotten over the fact that I pierced my nose and eyebrow during my 20s. Oh well.
posted by joan_holloway at 2:11 PM on April 8, 2014 [14 favorites]

Your kid is exploring his identity and how he presents himself to the world and his classmates. That is a kind of social engagement, and judging from your last question, I think you could see it as a healthy sign. Considering one of your primary concerns was socialization, then you should think more about how he (and his identity) interact with his peers, not with those boring old teachers and adults.
posted by Think_Long at 2:11 PM on April 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

My mother let me get blonde highlights in my dark brown hair if I got an A on my math test in the 7th grade. Yes, it looked horrible - but I studied my butt off for that test. I got what I wanted, and she got me to be more engaged in geometry.

If being socially connected is something you want him to be, and he has fallen into a "goth/punk/emo" social niche, why not encourage (within age appropriate reason) that expression of himself in that age group?

I'm not saying nipple piercings are next on the list - but in the grand scheme of things, dying your hair is pretty normal. Also - I doubt most highschool teachers these days are going to have a strong bias to the goth subgroup, especially at such a young age.
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 2:12 PM on April 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

If he were my kid, I'd get him some of the wash-out hair dye that kids use at Halloween and let him try it over a weekend first, and then over a week at school, and give it a few test runs before committing to permanent hair dye either at home or at the salon.

Since he's a boy, if he does decide he wants a more permanent dye job, it's easy enough to cut it all off if he decides he doesn't like it. I'd worry more about a little girl with 18 inches of hair wanting to dye it; boys can fix hair mistakes with buzz cuts and nobody really thinks twice about it.

"I want to let him express himself, but I also want him to know that the superficial assumptions other people make about you can affect how they treat you, regardless of how shallow that sounds."

This is a parent thing, and it's a really important parent thing. Kids don't always like it, but one of your jobs is to help him think through the consequences of decisions, even if you think he's old enough to make that decision himself.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:12 PM on April 8, 2014 [22 favorites]

I dyed mine green when I was his age. During my teenage years, I had bleached blonde, black, red, orange, blue and purple hair....and definitely grew out of it in my early 20s. Sounds like you did the same thing. Did it have any negative consequences for you? Guess not, you grew up to become a parent, who wants the best for their kid.
Let him do it.
posted by travelwithcats at 2:12 PM on April 8, 2014

I was a kid like this (i.e. tiny goth) and I turned out just fine.

Internally identifying as a weird person and visibly identifying myself as a weird person were two very different things, and the former only really clicked into place once I gave myself permission to completely embrace the latter. Being visibly weird let me find My People; more accurately, being visibly weird let My People find me.

The sooner his people can find him and vice versa, the better. Twelve is an excellent age for this to happen. Let him let his freak flag fly!
posted by divined by radio at 2:13 PM on April 8, 2014 [40 favorites]

The great thing about hair is it can grow back.

My parents freaked when I dyed my hair a natural-ish looking red color that was not terribly different from my normal brown color. It was more highlights than dying, actually, with the way it came out. It's not like I got a tattoo.

I got the tattoo when I was 25.

But, you know, this is a good time to let him make decisions that can be more or less repairable and to teach him how to make these decisions so that if he does, say, choose to get a tattoo at 25, he has a solid foundation for going about making such a decision.

If you help him with it --- it'll become the story of, "My parents were so great, they not only let me dye my hair at 12, they HELPED me do it!" And then the other great things that followed from respecting your son as his own person capable of making his own (within reason at certain ages) decisions. Help him grow into the person he is becoming, rather than helping him grow into the idea of who you want him to become. (I know, easier said than done from one parent to another. Definitely easier said than done.)
posted by zizzle at 2:15 PM on April 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

I dyed my hair red in 8th or 9th grade; I was 12 or 13. My mom said later on that she thought that hair color/style was something that is a good non-permanent thing for young teens to start having autonomy over, and I fully agree. Hair grows back - especially on a boy assuming his hair isn't long - who cares?
posted by gatorae at 2:15 PM on April 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

I actually wish my parents had been more lenient on letting my dye my hair funky colors when I was a kid! I just waited until college and then went wild with the Manic Panic.

If you *do* let him dye it, and I think you should because hey, it's just hair, some advice: don't go with permanent hair dye! It will not fade, it'll be a bitch to grow out (unless he's okay with just shaving it all off) and stripping the color out is costly and really does a number of your hair. I know this from sad experience. (I also have naturally light-colored hair, black hair did not suit me, and I was too dumb to use semi-permanent or temporary dye.)
posted by sarcasticah at 2:16 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wee Thumbscrew is eight and has peacock-green hair. The only downside is that his dad and I have to spend an hour every week or two on its upkeep. While I wasn't initially in favor, the reactions from EVERYONE have been cute and positive.
posted by julthumbscrew at 2:17 PM on April 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Another person who dyed their hair crazy colors all through adolescence and turned out fine (I actually love my natural hair color now). Let him do it! If you're still concerned, you can have him wait until school's out for summer to take it for a trial run, but why not now? He sounds a like a good kid and it sounds like he's articulated his reasons why pretty well. If it was "because XYZ is doing it," then I think there'd be more cause for concern.
posted by troika at 2:18 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Parents around these parts seem to be all about dyeing their kid's hair crazy colours at super young ages. Think 6 year old with a blue mohawk, and the like.

I think it's awesome.

First, the kids are so young that no one is going to judge _them_ for the styles (even if the styles are their ideas), so they can just have fun and be kids the way that they want to be). It's much better to be doing this kind of thing at 10 than at 17, I think.

Second, I honestly think that it's a chance for the parents to give their kids a little taste of what they were denied when they were growing up. And since it's harmless fun and the kids seem to be into it, there's no problem with that.

Third, hair grows back. If the head gets dyed and the kid doesn't like it (or doesn't like the responses of people around him), he can just go bald for a couple of months.

If I were his parent, I'd let him do it. Maybe (if you're doing the allowance thing with him) make him pay for the supplies/trip to the salon. If I were his auntie, and therefore taxed with spoiling him and teaching him mischief, I'd totally pay for him to get it done.
posted by sparklemotion at 2:20 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Another kid like this. Started dyeing my hair a purplish burgundy in sixth grade, then all sorts of weird colors in high school, then a mohawk junior year for the prom, then getting tattoos at nineteen.

My mother was variously unhappy about some of these choices. It never ceased to feel like a control issue for her. I recently had my first child, and upon seeing her, one of the first things she said was, "How would you feel if she covered herself in tattoos?"

My answer was that if my daughter was happy, I would be happy. I stand by that. It's her body.

Your son is probably doing this in part as a way to make a statement about the autonomy and control he holds over his own body. I know that in middle school, it was that, for me. Lots of weird and awful out of control things were happening to me--my mother wasn't concerned about how I'd get teased for my physically painful new braces, of course, because it was "for my own good." I had cramps, and new boobs, and weird curves, and I couldn't control any of it.

The hair was something I could control, and feel good about.

The more you buckle down on this, the more your kid will probably feel the need to rebel and strike back.

Also, teacher approval does not matter for social success at this age. Peer approval does. Student at a tech-oriented high school? Video game lover? His friends will probably love his new look. You're looking at this through a parent-lens, not a tween-lens.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:23 PM on April 8, 2014 [13 favorites]

Also, I'd recommend Revlon Colorsilk. It costs about $4 at the supermarket, and eventually washes out. Super frustrating when you're a grown-up lady, but should work well for him before you both are ready to try a more permanent color.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:24 PM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I never dyed my hair as a teenager - it was not allowed in my household. I resented that fact quite a lot at the time. Why? Because other kids were dying their hair and my parents could not provide me with a good reason to disallow it, just the good ol' "because we said so" (which resulted in resentment on my part).

So I say let him dye it. If it doesn't turn out or he realizes it's not for him, he can simply cut it and grow it out again.

I wouldn't worry about how it affects him socially. If he's part of a 'subculture', chances are the other kids are doing it too. It could help him solidify his identity (as a goth, or whatever that subculture may be) and perhaps make friends in that community.
posted by stubbehtail at 2:27 PM on April 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

You might check on his school's grooming policies before moving forward. Some don't allow stuff like this. Otherwise, it sounds harmless.
posted by cecic at 2:28 PM on April 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

Let him do it and he can deal with the consequences (if any). No big deal. Get a box dye and do it at home. Be careful, dark dye - even temporary dye - will permanently stain anything it gets on. Dark dyes will also stick to the hair for a much longer time and can't be easily stripped out. He'll have to grow it out if he wants a change. But, everything considered, I don't think that it's a bad idea at all.
posted by quince at 2:28 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I grew up in a very restrictive household. (For instance, I got yelled at regularly for wearing high top sneakers with shorts.) There is no way in hell I would have been allowed to dye my hair, so I didn't even ask.

For this reason, I've sort of become a late-in-life hairsperimenter. In the last year I've shaved the sides of my head, had purple bangs, had completely hot pink hair, and been bald. I just bought blue dye last week, so there'll be that to add to the mix soon.

Just get the kid a tub of manic panic and let him have at it. Having black (black! it's not even like a crazy color! it's black!) hair when he's 12 is going to affect his life approximately zero except that he'll be able to say, "gee, my parents are actually pretty cool about some things."

If I could go back and give my parents one tip for raising me, it would be let the inconsequential stuff slide. This is pretty inconsequential stuff.
posted by phunniemee at 2:29 PM on April 8, 2014 [9 favorites]

I would set the arbitrary age of 13 as the age at which its ok to dye hair. Gives you time to calm down & some sense of parental limits. Gives him a growing sense of autonomy awarded with age not just 'when I challenge you'. Win/win.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:29 PM on April 8, 2014

Yeah I dyed my hair at 12/13 in the mid-90s as a dude in a reasonably "white-bread" town. Blue, and then green. My sister did hers purple at the same age. I can't remember any authority figures caring (it helped that we both excelled academically, but still).

I still love the pictures of myself from that time (which, frankly, I don't generally like pictures of my self for body image/esteem issues). I wish I could go back to it (which, as a lawyer, I absolutely can't). It grows out, it's really really really not a big deal. Let him spend time in which he can do things like this, doing things like this.

On formality, which you mention. To at least some extent, acting Formal is about changing your daily routine to accept the fact that you're at a different setting. Hence suit/tie or whathaveyou; also a modifier of demeanour. It's performative, I guess. Having jet-black hair wouldn't stop him from dressing or acting in a formal manner. I personally don't think bright unnatural colours would stop this, but opinions can differ on that. when working at a start-up, I had lunch with a big-name IP lawyer to talk shop while having a mohawk, because that's what I had when my boss asked me to stop in Vancouver on my way back from holiday. Nbd.

Also, yeah, no need for doing this professionally. Just don't let him out of the bathroom until he won't dye everything around!
posted by Lemurrhea at 2:29 PM on April 8, 2014

You should let him do whatever with his hair with his own money. Hair can always be cut off.

If "whatever" involves at home dye application, you should probably help. 12 year old boys do not typically have the skills and knowledge to avoid getting dye all over themselves and the bathroom.

Both pieces from experience.
posted by PMdixon at 2:30 PM on April 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

I want to let him express himself, but I also want him to know that the superficial assumptions other people make about you can affect how they treat you, regardless of how shallow that sounds.

You can't protect him from learning this lesson - he's almost certainly being taught it in all kinds of other insidious ways - but you can (try to) set parameters where the harm will be minimal and of short duration. Like letting him dye his hair.

If he does it at home - and he should, because pro jobs are expensive - do help him, and do outline the consequences for getting dye all over the bathroom and not cleaning it up.
posted by rtha at 2:33 PM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't see a real reason to say an outright no. If you are concerned about schools reaction, i would suggest making him wait until school is out, and that way the school reaction is out of the picture. Summer isn't far off. (Although its probably eons away from his perspective).
posted by TheAdamist at 2:36 PM on April 8, 2014

I was around this age when my friends and I started experimenting with lemon juice and that terrible "sun-in" product. There was a wave of god-awful hair bleaching gone wrong. Orange. Green. Fried. Cotton Candy. It was a veritable spectrum of bad haircolor.

That said:

I am female. I was not the only girl in my class engaging in this sort of thing, and if anything it was a group activity. Women turning their hair blond is an expected thing, and it's expected that girls will start experimenting with beauty treatments around this age.

I don't want to tell you to say no because Bullying. Because that sort of thing basically amounts to victim blaming. And the reality is that, when my parents tried to pressure me into conforming on threat of bullying from other kids, I took that as my parents not having my back at all.

I kind of feel like he's going to do what he's going to do, and whatever the fallout is, he is going to have to learn to deal with this stuff sooner or later. I was bullied and mocked brutally around this age, and it really hurt. But it gave me the thick skin I needed in order to stop caring about such things and just do what I wanted to do. It's like ripping off a bandaid, or growing pains. I don't want to sound flip about it, but it seems like he's going to be different no matter what haircolor he has. It's better he learns to navigate these waters while they're knee-deep instead of over his head.
posted by Sara C. at 2:39 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

OK so I had a young mom and also lice and she buzz cut my head when I was in the second grade, and died the rest of it purple. I looked 100% like a boy, we moved across the country, she let me pierce my ears. Then in the 5th or 6th grade I died parts of my hair pink. I had highlights. I have had all kinds of hair dye going on from basically then until now. I never died it black, but I really wanted to when I was in high school. My mom always just basically told me it would look bad on me (very true) and I basically never went through with it. But throughout my whole life, I have enjoyed having control over my hair (and, by extension, my body) and I definitely don't think 12 is too young. He will either love it and keep it up, or he will think it isn't worth the hassle, or whatever. He is going to make the friends he is going to make whether his hair is black or natural, and if he wants to express himself this way I would just grin and bear it :)
posted by hepta at 2:40 PM on April 8, 2014

I was 14 when I dyed my hair black. I was also the dorkiest, meekest, most harmless fourteen-year-old you ever met. Let him do it, just make sure he uses old clothes/towels and cleans up after himself.

And, really, by the time you're twelve, most kids are already hyperaware that people are making shallow and superficial judgments based on your looks. It's a huge part of the teenage experience. Letting your kid have a reasonable degree of control over the way he presents himself can be wonderfully freeing and empowering.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:42 PM on April 8, 2014

Eh, let him do it.

Get semi-permanent at-home dye. It will wash out over about 30 washes (~8 weeks).

Maybe even dark-dark brown instead of black.
posted by amaire at 2:42 PM on April 8, 2014

My four year old wanted to streak her hair blue, to which we said why not, that's what wash out dyes are made for. 8-10 shampoos later her blonde hair is as golden as ever, all the neighborhood kids thought she was the coolest, and the parents commended us for letting her experiment freely. Maybe have him try that sort of dye first, or a Manic Panic soy based dye. In 2014, honestly, no age is too young to start experimenting with self expression as long as it's in a safe way. Be flexible on small things like this and he's more likely to come to you about bigger things in the future. When i was his age, i would have been as scared to talk to my mom about cigarettes as i would have been about hair dye. They don't have much control over what happens in their lives, so allowing something easy like this fosters trust and respect.
posted by assasinatdbeauty at 2:43 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you are really worried about snickering at school, suggest that son delay dye or rinse until summer vacation. Dying his hair black made Elvis's career although he was a bit older when his handler ordered it.
posted by Cranberry at 2:47 PM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's fine, he'll be fine.

But when I told him my concerns, he accused me of trying to control his identity to please other people, which I totally was.

Kid has a good BS meter. That's a good job on your part. He'll be fine!
posted by oflinkey at 2:47 PM on April 8, 2014 [24 favorites]

My mom had a surprisingly firm rule that she wouldn't dictate how I looked as long as a) it didn't violate school dress code b) it was relatively appropriate to the situation*, c) it wasn't permanent in the sense of surgical reversal, d) it met some basic standards of decency, e) my grades were a B or better.

Though I did not get to pick my own hair color until I was about 15. She frosted mine at home until then, and in retrospect that was really her idea, not mine. Telling.

*The caveat was that there were certain social situations, loosely defined as "more for grownups than for kids and requiring specific clothing" in which she dictated my costuming. Weddings, funerals, graduations, that sort of thing. It was understood that she would purchase any such clothing and it was not taken out of my own regular clothing budget.

When I did start dyeing my hair, I was required to only use the dark green towels and pillowcases. Staining of towels, bed linens, or bathroom surfaces would have been grounds for revocation of the privilege.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:54 PM on April 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

I wish that my parents had let me do completely temporary body modifications like this (dying hair, haircuts, etc) when I was a young teen and it had virtually no consequences. I'm a professional adult now and the consequences of having bright blue streaks in my hair would be significant and financial, unlike the handwavey consequences of having an 8th grade teacher who thinks you might be a hellion. Your son sounds remarkably perceptive and bright -- I agree with him on this one!
posted by telegraph at 2:55 PM on April 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

I (a woman) deliberately dressed like a sloppy tomboy from the ages of 16-22. Baggy, ill-fitting, utilitarian menswear, no makeup, hair tied back in a simple ponytail. That's a pretty big no-no in the conservative culture that I grew up in. It was a pretty eye-opening experience in terms of thinking about femininity, normality, and what value those things held in our culture. I knew what the "right" way to dress was, but I didn't want to do that. I got a lot of outright disgust, people trying to fix me, people getting hostile because they thought I was doing it just to mess with them. I had a few conversations with well-meaning people who were concerned that "other" people weren't going to treat me right because of the way I looked. I found the conversations I had empowering, not damaging. I found it was actually really helpful to have to think about the power of first appearances. These days I dress like everyone else, but I know that it's a reasoned choice that I've made rather than an attempt to hide who I am.

The whole experience made me a lot bolder and more interested new experiences and people. I wasn't hiding the way I "really" was, so I could be fully honest with other people without having to worry about what they thought. The people who liked me were people I knew liked me for who I was, too. The friends I made in those days (nearly a decade ago) are still my friends today. I think that if your son is struggling socially, giving him license to temporarily alter his appearance could do him good.
posted by rhythm and booze at 2:58 PM on April 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

You actually should *want* your kids to get their weird hair color phase out of their system when they're too young to get a job anyway. Let him do it now so that he'll be bored of it by the time he's 18.
posted by Jacqueline at 3:14 PM on April 8, 2014 [8 favorites]

My niece started colouring her hair around that age. Just out of curiosity would your opinion be any different if your son wasn't male?

If you are super worried, make a rule he can only use semi permanent, water based, hair colours that wash out after a few washes. They only last a few weeks and don't permanently damage the hair like peroxide based ones do then let him go crazy. I'd make him avoid the good towels etc too.

Pick your fights during puberty, hair colour is not the hill you want to die on you'll have a lot bigger issues to put your foot down about in the years ahead.
posted by wwax at 3:28 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

When I was 10, I arrived for the first day of fourth grade with my hair dyed purple and an "earring" in my ear.

The earring was, in actuality, one of those little metal clips that are sometimes used to bind the toes of dress socks together before they're sold, because fuck the system.

I don't think I ever dyed my hair again (though I did get adventurous with hair clippers in 8th grade and then again in law school).

I also never again wore any sock paraphernalia on my person.

It was a good experiment and experience.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:29 PM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

At 12 I shaved my head and had the word 'JYRO' carved into the back of my head by a barber while my mother was recovering in the hospital from an operation. Dying your hair black honestly seems pretty tame as far as 12-year-old identity gestures go. I didn't get into the black clothing and fingerless gloves until I was fifteen. He's an early bloomer!

Seriously though, it's his head. If people are going to treat him weird because of his own decisions, it's time for him to learn that lesson.
posted by Jairus at 3:30 PM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I started dying my hair at about that age -- a bit older, I think. But I did natural colours. My sister, at a somewhat younger age, regularly did purple or whatever highlights (eventually the school changed the rules so she had to stop).

Yes, discuss with him the kinds of reactions that might -- or might not! -- happen. Look for temporary dye. Make sure that if you don't help him with the dye (wear gloves), that you do remove all stainable items from the bathroom and remember to use towels and tshirts you don't want to keep.
posted by jeather at 3:35 PM on April 8, 2014

While I started dying my hair around nine or ten, I'm honestly more worried about the chemicals if kids are still growing than the reactions of people. My seven year old is only allowed to dye her hair with safe things like Kool-Aid (and so far the care needed has been too much so she's chosen not to). I don't know if twelve is old enough that that's no longer a concern or not.

If you do find a safe enough dye, especially if you do temporary color, I do recommend getting your son black towels, sheets, and pillowcases. It'll make dye stains less important as well as affirming his goth style choices.
posted by Margalo Epps at 3:40 PM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Elvis dyed his hair black, and then he brought the devil's music to Memphis.

Nah, don't worry. When I was in middle school, plenty of dudes dyed their hair black — enough that I was a "rebel" by not dyeing or piercing anything — and that was back in the 20th century when PUNK ROCK STILL MEANT SOMETHING.

The only deterrent I'd use is telling him you'll take lots of pictures and in 10 years he'll look back with embarrassment at his middle school haircut. It's a rite of passage.
posted by klangklangston at 3:43 PM on April 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

I was this kid! At twelve my parents let me come to school with my hair temporarily sprayed blue, and it all went downhill from there. In High School it was black, bleached blonde, traffic cone orange, green, and bright red.

I noticed a huge change in how I was perceived by teachers and administrators. In Elementary School I was a bookworm who got straight A's, and suddenly I had people assuming that I was a drug user, that I couldn't possibly understand the class material, that I was going to slack off or be disruptive. I also noticed that my performance and level of involvement in the class was significantly affected by the teacher's expectations. If they treated me with respect and kindness, I got A's and B's. If they treated me like a juvenile delinquent, I got C's and D's.

But I don't wish that my parents had forced me to dress in a less noticeably offbeat way. It was the best lesson in why not to judge other people by their looks that I could have hoped for. I was especially aware that as a middle-class white girl, I had the option of dressing in such a way that people wouldn't assume I was stupid or dangerous, and not all of my classmates had that privilege. If your son does encounter unfair treatment based on how he looks, maybe that's an opportunity to have a really productive discussion.

And just so that second paragraph doesn't scare the crap out of you-- I'm sitting here with natural hair, in business casual, in a biomedical research facility. So what if some silly teacher thinks he's a Satanist? It probably won't matter in the long run.
posted by twort at 3:43 PM on April 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

When I was in high school there were these two punk girls - one in my grade and one a couple of grades down - and their mom let them have their hair however they wanted. Their mom did some stuff with my girl scout troupe back when I was in girl scouts, before I really knew the daughters - and she was just the best. In retrospect, I can tell that she was an ex-hippie (she had a loom!). But anyway, the two girls always spoke lovingly about their mom, unlike pretty much everyone else in school. And all the teachers loved those girls - they were in honors classes and always the stars of art class. This was in the late eighties/early nineties ALSO BACK WHEN PUNK MEANT SOMETHING and in a very conservative suburb to boot.

I look back on how controlling my parents were about my appearance (over really tiny, silly stuff) and what a production they made about how I was embarrassing them and how horrible my judgment must be and so on (again, over very small things that were actually pretty mainstream), and it really made a distance between us. It was very clear to me that no one was even noticing the things they made such a fuss over - no one was embarrassing them, they were just choosing to feel that I was a source of shame for no reason at all. It made me feel really bad about myself.
posted by Frowner at 4:03 PM on April 8, 2014 [18 favorites]

(I'm making the assumption that your school year follows a regular schedule, and that there's Summer Vacation coming up.)

Could you negotiate with him to wait until summer vacation to do it? If it's a one-off thing, he can get it out of his system with the least amount of potential angst from teachers, administrators, and the like, and then, get a hair cut. If he turns out to love it, then he can plan ahead on how to best take care of it. When I dyed my hair black, some people couldn't even tell that it wasn't my natural hair color. If he finds a shade that blends with his overall complexion, it might be the same way. Plus, less jarring to start the year with dyed hair, then come in the next day with it radically changed.
posted by spinifex23 at 4:03 PM on April 8, 2014

As a boy that tried to dye his hair purple in high school: let him do it. =) Not permanent, and even if he ends up not liking it, he'll be glad he could try it out.
posted by kavasa at 4:19 PM on April 8, 2014

When my brother was 14, one of his friends turned up in school one day with a mohawk. It got a lot of attention in my small town, but his mother was nonplussed by it all. The kid got a little teasing for it but not, like, outright abuse.

But I remember overhearing my mother asking the boy's mother about the mohawk, and her response has always stuck with me - "oh, yeah, sure, I had no problem letting him get it. It's just hair, and it'll grow back - and while it's growing back, he gets to deal with people's reactions, and decide whether he wants to keep it or not."

You know? Letting him play with his hair is actually a bit of a small way for him to potentially risk falling down and going 'boom'. And, it's possible that he'll really like it, and so will other people. And if he decides he doesn't like's only hair, so utimately it'll grow out and be a temporary change.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:27 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

The rule in my house was basically that you could do whatever you wanted with your appearance so long as it wasn't in any way permanent. So, no tattoos or piercings, but style your hair however you like and wear whatever you want (except at grandma's 80th birthday party, when you will wear what you're told young lady). Experimenting with appearance is one of the ways kids learn about social interaction and self-expression and in-group/out-group and etiquette and all the other stuff we want them to learn. So I'd say, let the child dye his hair!

(I had pink and purple hair styled in, essentially, a white-girl afro, for about three years in my teens. I also wore carpenter jeans and a lot of t-shirts with weird sayings on them for most of that time. Now I'm a lawyer. So I guess you shouldn't let your kid dye his hair if you're worried that it might result in him ending up as a lawyer...)
posted by decathecting at 4:42 PM on April 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

•If you can, talk him into waiting until summer.
•Two rules: he has to keep his grades up to an agreed-upon level, and he has to clean up the bathroom afterwards. Help him dye it, but he has to clean the bathroom (to YOUR standards!).
•Like lots of other folks say, use semi-permanent home dye, and let him pay for it with his own money.
posted by easily confused at 4:43 PM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Say yes. If people react negatively, he'll learn a lesson and won't do it again. I suspect that after a couple of days, no one will even notice.
posted by cnc at 4:48 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had waist length hair and dyed it black when I was 14. I never went back-- I'm 34 and it's purple right now. I never regretted it. I don't think anyone I'm aware of regrets a temporary change in colour either, even if they went back to natural after. The worst that's going to happen is that he'll be a little dismissive of his "goth phase", if it turns out to be a phase. I dyed my hair in the mid-90's, and it was a lot less accepted back then. I felt a lot better about myself and more comfortable in my own skin, and, frankly, it didn't much affect the frequency of the few "satanist" comments I had started getting already due to wearing black all the time.

Let him go full babybat. Either it will make him as much happier as it made me, or he'll decide he doesn't like it and go back. Hair dye is pretty harmless.

Though I will admit I am not looking forward to doing my roots tonight. You do get a little sick of it after you go through that process hundreds of times. But it will be decades before he has to worry about that.
posted by Because at 4:48 PM on April 8, 2014

Get him some semipermanent color and let him have at it. We went through this with one of ours. She learned her lesson.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:57 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would be grateful that he only wants hair dye and not a piercing or tattoo or that he starts scarring himself. Or something even worse. Hair can be relatively easily fixed.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:21 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

adding to the chorus -- my mom let me dye red & pink stripes in my hair in seventh grade, and wear colorful tights, and harley boots, and I still feel so much gratitude toward her for it. as far as rebellion goes, that kind of thing is so, so harmless. what's more, dressing slightly left of center helped me gain a sense of ownership toward my body/appearance, as well as a confidence in my creativity that carried over into high school and adulthood.
posted by changeling at 5:26 PM on April 8, 2014

I think you should help your son explore the risks of cosmetics, shampoos and hair dyes and steer him toward less toxic choices. If he is truly against the system telling him what to do, this might be a way to engage him in discussions about mass marketing, product approvals and the like. Ask him to research some safe way of dying his hair - and perhaps start him out with something that washes out before he goes permanent, just as a way of testing things out. My major concern with all this would be the chemicals on my kid's head. If he looks into it and is aware of the choices, this would be a good life skill to have.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 5:44 PM on April 8, 2014

I agree with Changeling.

You know that the answer is yes.
I would argue that requiring him to "Pay for it to be professionally done" may be a bit much.
Is he the kind of teenager that gets $50.00 a week allowance?
If he isn't, and I am guessing-just guessing that he isn't, it may be a bit mean to force this condition on him.
A part of dying ones hair has some risk. Does it turn orange? We'll find out soon won't we?
Let the kid spend his "Own" money on a twelve dollar box of dye from wal-greens. Make it a mother/son bonding experience by helping him, or turn it into a "Look how adult you are, making your own choices and doing the dye job yourself" if he doesn't want your help.
Basically don't turn this into "You can do this after you saved ever dollar you've gotten for the last three months kinda thing, or a wait until your birthday" thing.

If by chance your twelve year old gets $50.00+ a week for an allowance, then by all means-disregard all my previous advice and have the little A** pay for it.
It stimulates the economy. Remember to tip!
posted by QueerAngel28 at 5:44 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I did blue streaks at 12. Nth let him do it, nth semi permanent - black is really hard to strip out otherwise. People wind up with roots and have to commit to it, or else bleach it out and dye over it again. Though it might be most kids would benefit from going through a fried hair phase, for character development, and he could always cut it, of course. Manic Panic was the temperamental kid's dye of choice back in my day, and it looks like it's still pretty popular.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:44 PM on April 8, 2014

I'm a lot more worried about your towels and your bathroom rug than I am about his identity etc.

As long as the school dress code doesn't prohibit it, who cares? Let him experiment with how his appearance affects his treatment by other people.

(Put an old towel on the floor and make sure he has an old and/or dark towel to dry his hair with after he rinses it out, because you never really get it all out on that first rinse. Ditto dark pillowcase and sheets.) Good luck to him and hope he has fun with it.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:47 PM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Thank you all for your advice, and for confirming what I suspected.

I'm still considering taking him to my hairdresser because a) the kid has an insanely thick mop of hair and b) I'm still finding evidence on the bathroom wall of the Great Henna Experiment we did last year. But I'll look at my options.

I think I was hung up on two things. First, I have no idea how old 12 is. I wouldn't have given his request a second thought if he was a few years older, but his 12 seems to be vastly different from my 12.

I also wouldn't have been as concerned if he wanted another, less morose color. We didn't have Manic Panic when I was growing up (we had black cherry Kool-Aid powder), and I would have loved to try one of those deep blues or greens. Part of my worry comes from stories some of my community college students tell me, of their teachers thinking they were the next iteration of the Columbine killers because of their goth garb, and the distrust or dismissal they experienced as a result.

But fuck it. It's sixth grade. And if he gets any guff, I'll just make sure my tattoos and piercings are visible when I go for the next round of conferences.
posted by bibliowench at 6:28 PM on April 8, 2014 [25 favorites]

I started dying my hair at around that age - and I'm still doing it now, a few decades later, because it's fun! The thing about being in a subculture is that though you're different than the majority of people, you actually belong with a smaller group - you're part of a culture that shares your musical tastes, your aesthetic, and often your morals. About half of my friends now are people I got to know through the goth/industrial scene, and they are fantastic people! Being part of that subculture has really enriched my life, and been a heck of a lot of fun. Don't look at it as he's trying to be different from everyone, so much as he's trying to be part of a group that he feels something in common with.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 6:39 PM on April 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

My kid is 11 and would love bright streaks in her hair. I've said no because her hair is dark and that means bleaching and dyeing and it's a big, messy--or, alternately, expensive--pain in the ass that I have no desire to undertake (I did my own two decades of fancifully coloured hair; I'm done) and I'm not so into the harsh chemicals in her pre-pubescent body. As soon as she's old enough to take care of it herself, though, I'll have no objection. I mean, the chemicals, sure, but I don't stop her from eating Cheezies or exposing herself to all other manner of known carcinogens, so hair dye seems a bit arbitrary.

I'm also kind of icked out by young girls doing stuff that's about being looked at, since they've basically got their whole lives to worry about that, but I recognize that is MY issue, so I try to keep it in check.
posted by looli at 7:22 PM on April 8, 2014

I'm surprised that nobody's really touched upon this angle yet, but this is a great opportunity to demonstrate through practice that every person's body belongs to themselves. This is an extremely important thing for your son to understand both for himself and in terms of his relationships to others.
posted by threeants at 7:50 PM on April 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

I say go for it, however check the school dress code first, just in case. Some schools are totally uptight about this kind of thing. Your location has a reputation for being conservative, but his smaller school may be fine with it.
posted by annsunny at 8:33 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

Just chiming in to agree with so many others to say go for it. I had a weird buzz cut dyed pink/purple/green for a long while at around that age, but by like 16 I was back to normal hair and my natural hair color. My mom and dad just shrugged, although my mom asked me to experiment with non-permanent dyes first to see if I liked it. It was a tough time, and having say over my appearance was a great self-confidence booster, despite the strange looks adults gave me.
posted by gemmy at 10:03 PM on April 8, 2014

I have an eight year old boy. He wants to dye his blonde hair jet black. I told him people usually look better going to a lighter shade in my opinion, but hey, hair grows back, just remember that if you change your mind you have to wait for it to grow or get it all cut off. He's debating it. Frankly, kids need to experiment and make mistakes, and hair is a fairly harmless one (except for the teasing potential, but life lessons aren't always easy.)
posted by davejay at 10:24 PM on April 8, 2014

... their teachers thinking they were the next iteration of the Columbine killers because of their goth garb, and the distrust or dismissal they experienced as a result.

There is an important life lesson right there, that how you look can have a significant impact on how you're treated. Worth it for that lesson alone I think.
posted by davejay at 10:26 PM on April 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm in my mid 20s, and i still resent how much of a crap my mom gave about stuff like this when i was a kid. Cutting my hair if she didn't like how it looked(up into my teens), forbidding stuff like this, arbitrarily banning certain clothing that wasn't offensive to anyone but her because she thought it was "dorky" or "dumb" or whatever, etc.

Literally a decade and a half later i'm still bitter if i spend a minute or two thinking back on that. It's just negative memories. Stung even more that i had plenty of friends who did stuff like this.

12 is about the age that, if they could, a lot of my friends who dress rather flamboyantly in a specific way started experimenting with that stuff. And the ones who weren't allowed to went even more peacock in young-adulthood.

I ended up shaving my head in protest of my parent-mandated terrible haircut at one point. If you're considering saying no, think about not only why you'd want to but what the rebellion might be.

I looked terrible for months, and got made fun of way more for my patchy shave-job than i would have for just dyeing my hair.
posted by emptythought at 1:28 AM on April 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

My mom cemented her status as Coolest Mom Evarrrrr by letting me dye my hair pink in the 6th grade. She got a lot of grief from other moms, but whatever. Teachers didn't care. They are used to kids and know how many phases they go through at this age.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 3:58 AM on April 9, 2014

I will say that if he does have thick hair, then, yeah, take him to the hairdressers. They can get semi-permanent dye and it'll be a lot easier than buying some home dye, discovering that it gets everywhere and it still hasn't covered everything, then having to buy more.

I waited until I was 17 before I dyed my hair jet black, and I haven't seen my original hair colour in 20 years (it's hot pink right now). And, really, the only reason people reacted was because I was golden blonde before and then BLAAAAAAAAAACK.
posted by Katemonkey at 4:15 AM on April 9, 2014

Not a direct answer to the question but: if he goes ahead, whether it's done in a salon or home, make sure to patch test first! Black hair dye nearly always contains PPD which a good amount of people react to and it's a miserable allergic reaction to get!
posted by Wysawyg at 4:29 AM on April 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

My daughter started dyeing her hair around age 12, and my rule was that it had to be a "normal human color" but also not black. My reasoning was the same as yours. She hated it but still managed to look edgy by going dark red, deep plum, dark brown, etc.

When she was 18 she started dyeing her hair weird colors and eventually black. It actually looked better on her than I expected (she is also naturally light-brown and I worried that it would be too harsh but it actually was not bad. YMMV with a boy... I think makeup helped in that regard.) She never got any flack about her blue hair or pink hair or black hair from anyone, in fact several conservative relatives said the colors were cute.

So I guess I could see you going either way with your son. If you think that black hair is going to make others perceive him as sullen and dark, and that it might even lead to him living up to his "hair identity", you could go the route that I did and let him do what he wants with his hair within whatever rules you want to set. He can still look edgy without that "angry black hair" vibe.

On the other hand, in retrospect I think it probably would not have hurt anything had I let my daughter do her hair black or pink earlier in life. (If you tell her I said that, I will deny it.)
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:05 AM on April 9, 2014

Kids color their hair, it is NO big deal. I doubt seriously that anyone will make too much of a fuss about it. Teachers are trained not to make comments about the appearance of their students. Kids, well, kids are assholes, if it's not his hair, they'll make fun of something else.

If you want to really bolster your kid and make him feel awesome, not only help him dye his hair (start with temporary colors so he can see if he really wants to commit) but take him to Hot Topic and let him pick out a few gothy accessories.

When my Goddaughter was 11 she decided to dye her blond hair pink and purple. Her mom helped her with it. She loved it. We all went to the supermarket, and I was approached by a little old lady who asked me, "the little girl, she dyed her hair for Purim?" I replied, "Yes indeed!"

People will fit the whole thing into their perspective and probably not judge him at all. It's so easy to please your son in this way, why not let him have this one?

Also, you should watch Little Miss Sunshine with him, I think he'll relate to Paul Dano in it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:04 AM on April 9, 2014

If you go the way of a home-dye, remember to put a bit of vaseline along the hair line of his face and neck, so he only dyes the hair and not the skin. :)

Good luck, mom!
posted by jillithd at 7:03 AM on April 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Let him do it. It's not like he has a job interview lined up next week.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:31 AM on April 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

One more anecdote: when I was 13 and entering high school (started school early), ALL the freshmen and sophomore boys came back from summer vacation having used Sun-In and peroxide on their hair. This was in an arty/progressive, but old-money area in the South. All these orange-headed 14 and 15 year old boys; we girls thought they just looked horrible, but no one ever really gave them any crap for it. So, yes, something maybe done professionally until he gets the hang of it.

Despite my parents being very liberal regarding the media I was exposed to and pretty laid-back about other elements of my teenaged years, I was never allowed to dye my hair. I did show up at 25 with tattoos though, and my mom was all "probably should have let you dye your hair blue..." I've still never dyed my hair, nor pierced anything, but I am covered in tattoos - however, with long sleeves, no one knows.
posted by sara is disenchanted at 8:35 AM on April 9, 2014

Nothing wrong with laying down the law as a parent. I would have done the same, and got a lip ring, but my parents forbid it. Not bad move on their part :P
posted by jjmoney at 2:02 PM on April 9, 2014

And if he gets any guff, I'll just make sure my tattoos and piercings are visible when I go for the next round of conferences.

[Richard Dreyfus voice] This means something!

I'm the middle generation of a subculture family. Not everyone in my family looks like a punk rock kid, but we are punk rock kids. My dad, who died a few years ago, shared my bloomed-in-early-adolescence love of punk rock music and culture back in the early 1980's. In the early 2000's he once hung up the telephone on my (ADULT) sister because she said she didn't love Fugazi.

My daughter chose the very same music and culture. I had a green Mohawk at 14; my child had a green Mohawk at 14. She wore my old clothes and I calmly (in my imagination, in reality it wasn't so calm) explained to the principle of her elementary school that this was family culture she was expressing and I didn't appreciate his attempts to ban it.

My nephew wanted to dye his hair purple just before turning 11. He was very used to being treated differently for his hair, as he's wanted and had shoulder length hair since he could talk. It wasn't an adolescent rebellion either, just an expression of his deep love for purple - that child is more attached to it than Prince, I swear to you...

Anyway, point is, after I talked to him about youknowhowpeoplecanbe, and his hair turned purple, we were all pretty happy to notice that the biggest demographic of Fans he got were random little old ladies on the street.

So, I don't think 12 is too little to expect this sort of request, particularly of you, who are not living in Opposite World. And I definitely think hair color is a safe thing for a kid that little to mess with. I shudder to think what would be on my body if I'd somehow gotten tattoos when I was 12, but hair is more visible and more changeable and I think you're all good so why am I still typing?
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 6:08 AM on April 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

As someone who has gone from red to black to red to black and over and over a few more times - it might take bleach to lift the black back out of his hair. So make sure he is aware (unless he uses semi-perm color).
posted by getawaysticks at 1:35 PM on April 10, 2014

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