As a show of team spirit, Sue Heffernan’s son and his entire hockey team bleached their hair together before their playoffs. The Warsaw, Ont., mom didn’t hesitate to give her son, then 10, permission, because she wanted him to be a part of the experience. “I think experimenting with hair colour is preferable to other things kids want to do, like piercings,” she explains. “And the moms were all there, and did the bleaching themselves, so the kids weren’t handling chemicals.”
On the subject of kids colouring their hair, some parents’ opinions are very black and white.
“My nine-year-old has asked, but to me, it does not feel appropriate for a little girl to put chemicals on her head to alter her looks,” says Sally Bonaldo, a mother in Lindsay, Ont. “I also don’t want her to put so much value on her appearance. Sure, I get my hair coloured, but I’m an adult. she is a child.”
Kim Hennekam, a mom from Omemee, Ont., agrees, even though her tween daughter hasn’t asked—yet. “I’m jealous of the highlights she was born with, and I want her to realize that her natural look is beautiful. I also don’t want her to start damaging her hair at such a young age,” says Hennekam. “However, I realize I may not have as much say as she gets older.”
As a teacher, I see more and more kids in this age group playing with hair colour, and it barely gets a second glance these days. It seems that the boys often do it in order to fit in with sports teams, while many girls are flexing their individuality and use hair colour as a way to stand out.
Amber Hall of Kelowna, BC, let her nine-and five-year-old daughters get glued-in coloured extensions. “I don’t see anything wrong with my girls wanting to express themselves in a different way,” she says.
Winnipeg mom Kelly Robinson* takes her 10-year-old daughter to get professional pink highlights as a way to boost her confidence and self-image. “She loves pink, and she gets tons of compliments on how great it looks. She’s dealing with a lot of difficult issues right now, like health problems and family illness, and the positive comments help give her a better outlook on life,” says Robinson.
Alyson Schafer, a Toronto psychotherapist, explains that changing their appearance is an exploratory phase for kids as they try to figure out their identity, and it can be used as a springboard for conversation.
“When you ban something, you make it more interesting.” Parents can still state their own values and opinions, she says. “For example, you might say, ‘When I see people with multicoloured hair I find it harsh or distancing,’ or ‘I’m worried about chemicals on your hair,’ or ‘I’m not willing to pay for it.’ It’s all fodder for conversation.” personally, says Schafer, she sees nothing wrong with letting kids try out different hairstyles. “My mother was an art teacher, and she used to say your hair is a renewable resource, so have fun with it!”
But epidemiologist Bruce Lanphear, a specialist in preventative medicine with the Child and Family Research Institute at BC Children’s Hospital, advises parents to discourage hair dye for kids.
“This isn’t because we know of any glaring health risks,” he says, “but because fewer than a third of all the chemicals used in consumer products have been tested for things like behavioural toxicity and endocrine disruption, so we just don’t know. Save your money, and reduce unnecessary risks.” You might consider natural hair dyes, clip-in extensions, or wash-out and temporary products such as hair chalks and coloured gels.
If you’re just not comfortable with it, it’s also OK to simply say no, says Schafer. “Most kids really do have a great respect for their parents and don’t want to disappoint us. But don’t over-exercise your ability to veto. Be judicious.”
DIY hair dye options
For a cheap, temporary alternative, try this easy dye-job recipe. (It works better on lighter hair colours.)
1. Mix three packs of drink mix or gelatin dessert powder (unsweetened) in a bowl with water.
2. Add enough conditioner to make a paste.
3. Apply to hair (wearing gloves).
4. Leave paste in overnight (have your child wear a shower cap to bed). Shampoo and rinse in the morning. Colour will last for about seven to 10 washes.
*Names have been changed.
A version of this article appeared in our March 2014 issue with the headline “To dye for,” p. 46.