What Is a “Cool” Parent?

The Kid With One F and her screaming pink hair
The Kid With One F and her screaming pink hair Photo by Jef Rouner
For our daughter's eleventh birthday, my wife and I took the Kid With One F to get her hair colored pink. It was something she asked about for years after watching the way her mom switches up hair colors regularly. Since the birthday we’d planned for her was consumed by the plague of 2020, it felt like a nice consolation prize.

Naturally, we took pictures of her so we could show the internet how old we all are getting (I swear this kid was starting kindergarten last week). A few people, however, dropped comments that said apparently we were going to be “cool parents,” and you could definitely here the reference to Amy Poehler’s character from Mean Girls in the way they said it. The implication is that the kid is destined for a wild, unfettered existence blessed by her aging, hellraising goth parents.

Which means maybe we need to examine what the hell a “cool” parent even is. See, from my perspective there’s nothing radical or drastic about allowing a middle schooler to have garishly colored hair. It’s hair. It’s temporary by nature and a part of her body she should have almost total control over. So long as they wash it and don’t start a bunch of cultural appropriation nonsense, I have a hard time seeing why any kid shouldn’t have the haircut they like. That’s not being cool. That’s just acknowledging your child’s reasonable body autonomy.

It would be nice if when we thought of what makes a cool parent it would be attitudes centered around respect of the person you are rearing. The idea that something like pink hair is “disrespectful” to authority or other ridiculousness is so rooted in rigid hierarchical norms that it should really be thrown in the waste basket of history. The fact that the norms still persist, and therefore that a child’s garish hair is an act of hostile rebellion instead of just another form of dress, is proof that we’re using pointless control mechanisms to no beneficial effect. You don’t get your kid pink hair to stick it to The Man because The Man’s opinion on hair should be irrelevant and it doesn’t hurt a single person.

Is that me trying to be cool? No idea. Like all parents I’m winging it.

To me the “cool parent” accusation has more sinister tones. I referenced Poehler in Mean Girls for a reason. That was a character desperate to recapture her own youth by enabling her daughter’s destructive habits at every turn. A parent like that tries to connect with his or her child in terms of friendship, ignoring that being friends with teenagers as an adult is super creepy. Especially when you’re doing things like pushing alcohol on them. You see this attitude in a lot of parents who don’t really know how to handle the transition from child to young adult well, so they default to how they would have liked to be treated as a teenager.

Or rather, how they think they would have liked to be treated. The idea of dad buying your beer or mom not caring if you stayed out all night sounds wonderful, but it’s rarely what children actually want or need. They already have a network willing to egg on their most dangerous impulses. What they need from a parent are boundaries and unconditional love.

Maybe if you let them make fairly banal decisions like coloring their hair pink then they won’t feel like they have to constantly escape from arbitrary rules later in life. I mean, they’ll still do stupid stuff. I keep my LiveJournal active specifically to remind myself of some of the idiocy I got up to in my late teens and early 20s in case that information is helpful for my own kid. They’ll be a lot more prepared for the consequences of their mistakes if their sense of identity is solidly built on a foundation of respect and logic rather than a mishmash of cultural norms and societal superstitions. Letting the kid get pink hair isn’t me trying to be cool. It’s me letting her decided what cool is so that later no one can easily force their version on her.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner