My 15-year-old son has long, shaggy hair that comes to his shoulders. And most of the time, he refuses to wear a tie to church.
As a parent of a child who doesn't fit the ideal Mormon mold, it is sometimes painful to watch how fellow Church members react to my son's appearance.
Don't get me wrong—most people are trying to be encouraging and good natured about it, but without fail, every Sunday there is someone who can't resist commenting on my son's haircut (or lack thereof) or on his outfit. When this happens, I cringe.
Don't they know how hard it was to get him to church in the first place? If you received unsolicited critiques about your hair and clothing every time you came to church, would it make you want to come back? The fact that he is here is a victory in and of itself.
But these well-meaning Church members don't know—and that's my point.
They don't know that my son's long hair is successfully covering his large ears that he is extremely self-conscious about. Nor do they know that he is struggling with his testimony, and it's all I can do to get him to church at all. So on behalf of LDS parents whose children might look a little edgy or rough around the edges, I ask a few things of our fellow Saints:
1. Be welcoming.
If our children feel ostracized or judged at church or Mutual activities, it is extremely difficult to get them to attend. Please refrain from commenting on their appearance. Instead, tell them you're glad to see them, and ask your children to do the same.
2. Be understanding.
I'm sure there are parents out there who would force their son to cut his hair and wear a tie, and I'm sure there are plenty of people at church who wonder why I don't do the same.
Please understand that parents often have to choose their battles. You don't know all the facts about what is happening and why, so please just assume the parents are doing the best they can to help their children live the gospel and try not to focus on outward appearances.
3. Be patient. What is easy for some is hard for others, and change doesn't happen overnight.
If you are a Church leader, continue to teach the reasons behind the modesty and grooming standards in a loving, nonjudgmental way. Allow our children time to process these principles and come to their own decisions. And if their decisions are not what you would have wanted, please respect them anyway.
If you are not one of our children's leaders (and even if you are), please don't lecture them or shame them for how they look. Instead, teach by example. Talk to them about their school, hobbies, hopes, and dreams. Show them that you value them as a person and that there is more to talk about with them than their appearance.
4. Be sincere.
If our children feel that you sincerely care about them, you can be a great influence on them, and we need all the help we can get. It is often a youth leader or caring ward member who touches the hearts of these children and facilitates a greater desire to live the gospel.
Believe it or not, over the past six months, my son has chosen to get his hair cut slightly shorter each time. And he wears ties sometimes, when it used to be never. I credit this in large part to the tireless efforts of his youth leaders. My son's face lights up when he sees them, and I know he feels loved by them.
I don't know if he will ever have a missionary haircut, let alone serve a mission, but I do know that when he feels accepted at church, he is more likely to be receptive to gospel principles. And that is my greatest wish for him.