Kids’ Haircuts Don’t Have to be Hairy

Haircuts for children tend to have one thing in common: distraction. In the interest of getting kids to cooperate while we get the job done, distracting them with toys, games, screens and other entertainment can seem the best solution. It seems kinder, too. What kid would want to sit still for several minutes while a stranger goes at them with shears?
But there’s a much better way, and it’s the polar opposite of distraction: involvement. When we honestly and openly involve our children in tedious or (perhaps) disconcerting activities like haircuts, they learn:

To be present, focused, and aware rather than disengaged, which is particularly crucial with activities that directly involve their bodies and personal space

That we respect them as valuable people who deserve to be informed, active participants in their lives

To notice and take interest in detail

That we’d never trick them or try to slip something by without their consent

That their input, feelings and opinions are important

That we trust them to be capable of positive behavior and patience

How to use scissors and cut hair (though I guess that one could backfire if they decided to take matters into their own hands!)

That haircuts, like any aspect of a life that is new to them, can be intriguing and even exciting

Here’s what happened when Michaela decided to invite her son’s involvement in getting his haircut:

Hi Janet, I want to share a success story. My 3 year old son, L, has a severe speech delay. He really doesn’t speak at all yet, but he understands everything. It is easy to treat him like a baby because he is pre-verbal. Lately, I have been focusing on making a point of speaking to him about complex situations and ideas, about past events, future plans and other abstract things we can’t see and point to. Essentially, I have been treating him as if he does speak, because I can see that his mind is there.

The last time he had a haircut (a few months back), we went to one of those kiddie places where he sits in a toy car while the hair dressers do all they can to distract him from the hair cutting with video screens and toys. He quickly grew tired of those things and then went into full meltdown mode over being touched. The haircut ended up messy in more ways than one.

So this time we took him to the proper men’s barber around the corner where his daddy goes. I decided it will be fine if I could be fine about it, and if the barber wasn’t spacey like they were at the kiddie place. We walked by each day for a few days, and I showed him through the window people getting their haircuts. We also talked to the barber, who seemed great with kids. L liked him so much that he let him touch his hair. So, I made an appointment. A few days before the cut I explained the whole process to him: that he would go in and sit like daddy, and the barber would use scissors — like the ones he uses for cutting paper — to cut his hair. And a buzzer, too.

The day of, I showed him a YouTube video of a toddler getting a haircut. That afternoon before going I said, “We are going to get your hair cut now,” and my boy enthusiastically pointed to his head and made the scissoring gesture with his little fingers. He was excited!

We went to the shop with his little brother in tow as my husband got delayed at work. The barber was running behind. Both boys sat there patiently for 45 minutes and waited. L chose to wait in an empty chair next to the barber’s station. Little brother ran his toy train up and down the bench. When his turn came, L refused the cover because he felt too hot, so the barber cut his hair without it. L sat there patiently and happily.

I feel like haircuts will be special occasions from now on, to be enjoyed rather than feared. Thanks for the guidance on having faith in our kids’ capacity to focus and be the actor, not a victim of things done to them.

I responded:

“That’s wonderful, Michaela! This was the key to everything: ‘I decided it will be fine if I am fine about it.’ Plus, the fact that you prepared him so beautifully! Our children’s success begins with our belief in them.”

Heila shared a similar success:

I just realize more and more how well this approach works. My son (2 ½) went for his first haircut yesterday. I have been telling him for days what to expect, why he has to go, and in detail what will happen when we are there. He was an angel! Everyone in the salon commented on “how well behaved” he is — and he is usually a VERY active, busy boy! The only time he moved was to inspect the little hairs on his hands, which were fascinating to him.

Respect works and will show our kids to be more capable and knowing than we ever imagined.

Thanks to Heila and Micheala for sharing their stories and photos!

I share more about respect and cooperation in No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

(Title photo by Ruocaled on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Dear Janet
    It is so simple, yet we have a hard time understanding and believing how much easier it is at the end.
    I tell the caregivers in my childcare centers, just imagine that it is you…instead of knowing what is going to happen you are not told in advance…you feel manipulated…you feel that your inteligence is not respected and this makes you mad! So why do this to a child?
    Thank you so much for being the great person that you are! I feel your warmth and goodness through your words of wisdom.
    Miriam, Israel

  2. Su-lee Ling says:

    Hi there, I am an avid student of all aspects parenting ed, so ofetn read with interest where folks who appreciate this perspective are at.
    Great topic-and the part that interests me is the over-arching issue of consent and gender constructs-ie: short hair for Boys, (mainly-as a generalisation).

    Why do some folks just (auto) cut their little guys hair short/shortish/very short?
    Why do some folks (auto) allow/like/foster their small gals to have long-longish-really long hair?

    There are of course lots of little fellows running around with shoulder length hair, or longer, often noticeably longer than primary school age guys in mainstream culture-here in AU at least.

    I think this a v interesting topic-particularly in recognition of the array of actions parents take automatically-without thinking of the consent aspect-like to me circumcison is one of the strongest examples.
    Choosing their ‘style’ of clothing, (and all the things involved in appearances), whether and what sports they will play, foods they eat.
    I am not into ‘permissive parenting’, as it were-I wasn’t a full-on free-range parent, altho I learnt a lot from the alternative style parents around me at the time.
    I have x2 grandsons now, youngest nearly 4yrs old, and has the most gorgeous head of hair you see! Tha colour-a natural balyage (as they say & pay for!!)
    He is v cute, and yes, his Mum & I (at times have dealt with what you might be thinking..’isnt she cute-does the little girl want a turn on the swing—Sometimes I wud announce ‘”this is Theordore!” ‘)
    So yes, some sound ideas on haircuts-but interesting that its appears not partic focused on young Girls-and why does this kinda automatically happen?
    In a dynamic society where all gender expressions are increasingly welcomed, supported, visible and celebrated-I would love to see less-‘lets go ahead and keep constructing gender with characteristic appearances’ and more I really love when little guys have long-longish hair and they look soft and as beautifully pretty as the the girls and that’s ok to be ‘inderminate’ as to their gender…

    Cheers-and thanx for all the great work that unfold everyday in regard to working with children/child development/parenting

    Su-lee Ling

  3. Joanne Sharma says:

    I wish I could find this approach successful with my son but he does not like having his hair cut because the cut hair itches his skin and he refuses to wear a cover. I try to tell him that I need to cut his hair because it’s too long. I think he either doesn’t get it or doesn’t care for my desire for him to conform to social norms.

  4. I greatly agree with respectful parenting and teaching however it just doesn’t work in all situations with our SPD and ASD 2 he old. It makes me feel so guilty that we need to use screens, but the other option is screaming and meltdowns. We try to avoid situations that lead to it but we can’t completely.

  5. I love this article Janet, thank you!
    I took my 4 year old for a haircut yesterday and because we’ve used distraction with him when he was little for this particular task, he asked to watch something while his hair was being cut.

    It makes me sad now to think that we missed such a beautiful opportunity yesterday to have him engaged in the process. Like you said at the start, we should respect them as valuable people who deserve to be informed, active participants in their lives. I will most certainly ensure that we don’t miss out on any more opportunities like this. Thank you Janet!

    1. Thank you, Max! And no worries, the great thing about parenting is that we get many tries at these types of situations. We’re all learners on a journey.s

  6. I love this and am so glad I read it before my little one got his first haircut. I honestly don’t think I would have thought of these issues, but definitely will now, thanks!

  7. We are among the parents who struggle to help our boy be patient and calm with haircuts. Thanks for these great examples of how to respectfully help him engage the process and embrace it himself.

  8. I’m pleased this has worked for you and the fact that your son is pre-verbal and understands you, is half the battle – you must feel so happy.
    My son is awaiting (mild) ASD diagnosis and haircuts have become a nightmare. I’ve tried all the things that you described above in your success story and it just ends in tears and me holding him. This is obviously not how I would like him to have his hair cut but I can’t see any other way as he doesn’t seem to care about Daddy having his hair done or another kid on the internet. I think he may have sensory trouble and not like his head being touched too much so this might be an issue. I’m not getting advice from anywhere that is useful to us; respectful parenting, asd websites etc. Anyone got any experience?

    1. Not sure i have any advice but i feel your pain. I have a 6 year old spn with sensroy issues and as he gets older he is getting better at refusing to comply. We cut his hair today and it took an hour. My husband does it at home and we take our time. We tell him in advance and plan it right before bath time. Nothing else happens on that day until it gets donem. Once its done we go out and do an activity he likes like the park. Its hard. Lots of screaming and tears. We tried tv today. Did not help. Then i read this post. Will not do it again. Will get him a mirror next time so he can watch and get him to pick where he wants us to start

    2. My son is 4 with ASD. He is fine with haircuts but it wasn’t always so because he hated anyone touching his hair, he hated the sounds and sensations of the buzzer and scissors. At first I took him to places that were quiet – he was the only person in the salon, and they made it very quick and short and I used some distraction while he sat in my lap and the aim was for him to tolerate a short experience rather than to have a decent haircut. Straight after we went to a park so he would have a positive association. I also let him play with combs at home and played songs about haircuts and role played with toys. Over time he has gotten better at tolerating haircuts and now he sometimes asks to go. He used to hate hair washes too…still does but no longer cries when they happen…sometimes it just takes lots of time and practice to build up their tolerance. OTs can also assist with these issues

  9. I’ve been putting off getting my son’s haircut for at least 6 months now because I’m afraid of the meltdown and a bad haircut. Do you have any more specific advice for younger kids that don’t understand as much? My son is 18 months. Right now I’ve been trimming his hair when I nurse him.

  10. For the first-timers out there: We cut our son’s hair for the first time when he was 4. He asked for the haircut, and was excited. We thought we explained everything, like the part that you need to wait a long-time for the hair to grow back etc. One thing we didn’t think to tell him is that… it does NOT hurt to cut your hair 🙂 He believed it would hurt.

  11. This just did not work for my so-called “strong willed” almost 3 year old. I often look to these articles for advice but lately feel at a loss for how to get her cooperation. I know she’s had a lot of big transitions lately, a new baby brother, mom returning to work and nanny returning as care giver, potty training/constipation issues, a traumatic (and uncooperative) appointment with the pediatrician. I guess I just need to give her consistency, time, and lower my expectations for now?

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