Last night, I told my kids, "Make sure you have an outfit picked out for the first day of school, so it will be easy to get ready on time!" This morning, I discovered that they heard me say, "Make sure you have an outfit picked out mentally, so we can spend the first morning frantically tearing through mountains of laundry in the hopes that your My Little Pony tank somehow miraculously found its way into a basket."

This is just the little kids, who more or less want to look like all their friends. I do have teenagers, too, and they are all deep into inventing their own styles. Yesterday on Connecting the Dots, a caller asked me and Mark Shea how to navigate kids' style choices, especially when they want to look weird. 

Naturally, kids have to follow the school's dress code, and they can't be immodest. (I tell them: You are a person, not an object. Dress so that it's easy for people to tell you're a person, not an object.) Beyond that, here are the general principles we follow:

1. Avoid anything permanent. When one of the kids thinks that a tattoo or a piercing might be kind of awesome, I ask them, "Hey, remember when you were really, really into Animorphs?" And they wince and grimace. "Okay," I say. "But at the time, you thought they were great, right? But now you think they're stupid. There's a lot of things like that: they seemed really awesome just a short time ago, but then your idea of awesome changed. This is going to keep happening for a while as you’re growing up, so we're not going to do anything that it would be hard to undo."

It doesn't hurt that my husband spends a lot of time in court, and can give them horrible examples of piercing and inking gone awry.

Hair, on the other hand, is not permanent. Cutting, dyeing, shaving, and manipulating with wax? All temporary, so they can do as they like. If worst comes to worst, you can chop it all off and start over again.

2. Their motivation matters. There is a huge difference between sporting a blue mohawk because you think it looks cool, and sporting a blue mohawk because you want to horrify and offend everyone you meet.  Trying to set yourself apart from your peers is morally neutral and should be tolerated, even if it makes adults cringe a bit. But trying to give the world or your family a big "F you" is a problem.

It's behavior that matters, and so it’s the behavior that parents should focus on.  This is just as true for kids who wear exactly what their parents want them to wear. Just as there's nothing especially virtuous about dressing in a modest and conventional way while being a snippy, catty, arrogant little twerp, there's nothing especially vicious about dressing like a weirdo if you're reasonably courteous and responsible.

3. Give them as much freedom as you can – not just because they want it, but because they need it. It's normal and healthy for older kids to start differentiating themselves from their parents. This doesn't mean they're rejecting you or trying to cut themselves off from you; it just means that they're trying to figure out who they are. This is what they’re supposed to be doing.

It's important for kids to feel like they have some kind of control over their lives. If the way they exert that control is to dress as they please, then you should get down on your knees and thank God that you've gotten off that easily!

Appearances matter, of course, and you have to let kids know that there will be consequences if they choose to look very odd. It may be harder to get a job, and you may have to work harder to earn people's respect. These are just natural results of the choices we make, and it doesn't mean that people who notice your kid's differences are bigots or prejudiced or shallow. In dress and in other matters, freedom comes with responsibility, and choices come with consequences. Letting kids make choices in their appearance is a good way to drive this lesson home.

There are lots and lots of things that parents and kids can fight about. It’s best when parents save their energy for things that really matter – and hair, clothing, shoes and jewelry rarely truly matter. When the choices kids make are really extreme, then their appearance is just a symptom, and parents should focus on addressing the underlying problem, rather than fixating on the externals.