US actress Jada Pinkett Smith is making headlines and not because of her celebrity antics or the state of her marriage to Will Smith. Instead the mother of three is in the spotlight over her liberal approach to parenting.
In an open post on Facebook, Pinkett Smith went on the offensive against critics who have questioned why she allowed her 12-year-old daughter Willow to shave her head earlier this year. Willow's edgy hairstyles, from her neon green buzz cut to punky pink mohawk have been the subject of intense media attention.
She wrote: "This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don't belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power or self determination. I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit and her mind are HER domain. Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair. It's also a statement that claims that even little girls have the right to own themselves and should not be a slave to even their mother's deepest insecurities, hopes and desires."
The post received around 4,000 comments on her Facebook page and sparked more controversy about how much freedom is good for a child.
"Letting a child do what they want to do is not only negligent it's lazy parenting," argued one commentator. "A child is incapable of making certain decisions, that's why the law doesn't hold them accountable for certain things. Willow needs you to be a mother, not a friend."
But does Pinkett Smith have a point? Do little girls have the right to own themselves and where do you draw the line?
"Children are safer and smarter than our culture gives them credit for" says Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry). In 2008 Skenazy became known as the 'world's worst mom' after she let her 9-year old child ride home from school alone on the subway in New York. "I do believe that kids deserve two things — in tandem — as they get older: more freedom and more responsibility," she told Fairfax Media. "So if a 12-year-old does what she promises to do and proves that her parents can count on her, I think it's only fair , and wise, that the parents start trusting her to do some things on her own, so long as these things aren't harmful. And hair decisions, as painful as they may be to the parents (and grandparents) don't fall into the 'harmful' category."
Dr Justin Coulson, a Sydney-based parenting coach and author of What your child needs from you: Creating a connected family says he believes that the Smiths are raising their kids with autonomy and that is a good thing.
"Research shows that kids who grow up with 'autonomy' and 'autonomy-supportive' parents usually flourish as adults and they're pretty happy kids too" says the father of five daughters. "Autonomy supportive parents talk with their kids a lot. They ask them questions and help them discover how their decisions might play out."
However, he says if a child and the parents can't agree, then it's a parent's duty to set a limit. "If a child were to do something harmful, or something permanent, then a line should be drawn. But it should also be done in an autonomy-supportive way. Forcing a child to do (or not do) something will typically promote resentment and damage the relationship. It's far better to talk through the issue and come to a mutually agreed upon solution or limit."
Jodie Benveniste, psychologist, director of Parent Wellbeing and mother says parents need to judge when and whether their child is mature enough to make decisions for themselves.
"In these circumstances, it seems fine for Jada Pinkett Smith to allow her daughter to choose to cut her hair. In other circumstances, where there are school policies about hair styles and colours, it may be inappropriate or something to leave for the holidays. It is our job as parents to support our kids to make decisions for themselves, and to help them deal with the consequences if they make a poor decision. Learning how to make decisions and deal with the consequences is an important life lesson."
But not all parents agree. Vanessa Hall, 30, from Brisbane, has three children and runs her own business. She says as a child she did what she wanted and grew up too early. As a result she is stricter with her 9-year-old daughter than her mother was with her. "I totally don't agree with giving kids too much freedom. Nothing good can come of letting kids decide things for themselves at a young age. The frontal lobe isn't fully developed until a young person is 21 so how can we expect them to make rational, decent decisions at 12 years of age? Kids might make decisions but they can't understand the consequences yet."
Coulson admits that it is easier to discuss these issues in theory rather than in practice. "Our hearts are so closely tied up with the decisions our kids make," he says. "If my 13 year-old-daughter wanted to shave her head I'd be concerned. It's not a culturally normal thing. So I'd be wondering where it had come from and why it mattered. It would all come down to the discussion, her feelings, and the context. Ultimately I'm in general agreement with Pinkett Smith that we need to teach our kids that their body is theirs. They have autonomy. But they need our guidance."