My friend Josh told me a story about some of his friends who were married and had a middle school-aged son. Around 7th grade the boy decided to “express himself” by making some strange stylistic choices. He grew out his hair until it was a humongous Afro. He also wore pants with one of the legs cut off at the knee. He called them “ports,” which is what you get when you combine the words “pants” and “shorts.”
If you can imagine, the boy looked ridiculous to anyone who had even an ounce of fashion sense and social grace. The boy’s parents were concerned. Why did he choose to have such wild hair and silly-looking pants? Was this a sign of worse things to come? Josh, who was not yet a parent himself, looked on with interest to see how his friends would handle the situation with their son.
The boy’s dad wisely told Josh about his philosophy that a non-moral issue is a non-issue. When it comes to policing kids’ decisions and behavior, parents need to discern between moral issues and non-moral issues. If you determine something is a non-moral issue then you need to let it go, no matter how annoying or distasteful it is to you.
In the case of Josh’s friend’s son, having weird hair and clothes was a non-moral issue. Sure, he looked silly and stuck out like a sore thumb in public, but he wasn’t actually doing anything bad. Josh’s friend decided to not fight his son’s fashion foibles and instead save his parental energy for more important battles involving moral issues.
Moral issues include things like drugs, sex, alcohol, language, respect, and obeying authority. You could throw in any number of biblical principles into that mix, too. It’s worth putting your foot down and providing consequences if kids transgress those boundaries. But if they wear weird clothes, have a messy room, forget to put on deodorant every once in awhile, or leave the toilet seat up, you’re probably better off not picking a fight. Save your fights for issues that really matter.
At some point it can be difficult to discern between a moral and a non-moral issue. Some things are clearly moral or non-moral, but there is a gray area in the middle where things can get muddy. This is where wise discernment, spouses, experienced parents, and trusted friends can come in and provide insight.
Just make sure you’re never labeling something a moral issue simply because your child embarrasses you or might make your family look bad. Josh’s friend with the goofy middle school boy was a well-educated, highly respected man in the community. It was difficult for him and his wife to be in public with their son knowing people might be judging their family because of their son’s appearance. They struggled with wanting to “fix” their son’s hair and pants in order to keep up their family’s good reputation.
The parents lovingly decided to allow their son to continue sporting weird hair and ports. I’m guessing the boy was simply exploring a new identity and wondering how people around him would respond, which is developmentally normal for middle schoolers. Eventually he gave up the crazy hair and started wearing regular pants, and now Josh reports the boy is a full-fledged, healthy adult who is making a positive contribution to society.
Parenting a middle school boy isn’t easy, and neither is discerning between moral and non-moral issues. You can provide love and support by enforcing consequences when you encounter immoral behavior. And you can provide further love and support by unconditionally sticking with him even when he looks and dresses like a fool.