My son's decision on earrings, blue hair, and braids

"How was school?"

"Huh?"

"How was school?

"Took a test."

"Oh really? On what?"

"I don't know."

I don't know either, but this parenting stuff isn't easy.

My 14-year-old son and I have always been able to talk freely, but lately I've had longer conversations with the family pets.

Take yesterday. My son said to me, "Mom, I've got something really manly in my billfold."

I gasped.

"Oh really? And what might that be?"

"Oh nuthin'." He grinned and left the room.

Six months ago, he would have told me what the manly item was in his billfold - providing he had a billfold and could find it. But now, when I ask him to tell me about his day, it's like talking to a rock.

So, when he reveals that he has something really manly in his billfold, do I give him the There's Nothing Manly About Teen Sex talk? Or do I hope the discussions we've had and the lessons we've taught him since birth do more than lie dormant in his subconscious?

Ironically, I teach 14-year-olds every day of the school year, and I'm seldom at a loss for words or method. But with my own son, who is trying so hard to strike out on his own, I am often seized with panic.

"Mom, what would you do if I smoked marijuana?" he asked me a few weeks ago.

I would die, I thought. I would throw myself in front of a train. "I don't know," I told him. "I really don't know. I would be disappointed. I would wonder why you did it. I might ground you for life. But first, I would hope that you were OK and safe."

In my heart of hearts, I think I have always wished my two sons would turn out to be athlete-scholars, those shiny faced young men one reads about in the Sunday paper who have 4.0 grade-point averages and four-minute miles. Those students who never give their parents a moment's worry and grow up to marry prom queens.

What I have are two teenage boys who are into everything that sets my hair on end.

When my oldest son was in fifth grade, he wanted to pierce his ear. If he got his ear pierced, I told him, the boys across the street would call him a girl, and his grandmother would disown him, and his teachers would think he was a hoodlum.

However, the decision would be his. I waited for a few weeks while he mulled it over. Then he asked me to take him to the mall. We went, he got his ear pierced, wore an earring for about six months and hasn't worn it since. "I felt so good being able to make my own decision," he told me later.

A few months ago, this same child asked if he could dye his hair blue. Bleaching his blond hair a lighter shade of blond was well within my comfort zone, but blue was miles beyond anything I wanted in my house. Even so, we negotiated. If he signed up for an honors English class, he could dye his hair during the summer.

Now he wants to play lacrosse, and blue hair doesn't fit into the scheme of things. This morning, however, he asked me to braid his hair. He was going for the dreadlock look.

"Ouch," he yelled, as I fastened a rubber band on the end of a short, thin, blond braid.

"Hold still," I replied. "It's the price you pay for beauty."

"This is not beauty," he said, looking in the mirror. "It's a statement."

Five minutes later, the braids were gone, and he was out front banging the lacrosse ball against the garage door. He went to school the next day and applied for the honors English class. No braids, no blue hair.

I'm convinced that if anyone without children heard what my sons do, and what I let them do, they'd think the boys were headed for the penitentiary. But, when I look at them, I feel nothing but an extraordinary sense of pride and joy for the loving human beings they are and the kind men they are on their way to becoming.

Last fall my youngest son danced with me across the kitchen to the tune of John Denver's "You Fill Up My Senses," convinced it's the song he wants played at his wedding. And everyday I wear the ring that he gave me on Mother's Day, the ring he once found on the playground at school.

My other son tells me that he loves me, that I'm "cool," sometimes "awesome," and sometimes just "too overprotective."

He also just told me that a kid at school offered to pay him $5 for that item in his billfold, but he doesn't have it anymore. He threw it away.

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting solutions, send an e-mail to home@csps.com, or write to Parenting, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.

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