A Change of Clothes

Recently, in church, I sat considering why it is that some parents do not insist that their children dress nicely for church. Obviously, there are issues with getting up late, avoiding an argument and so on….but I wonder if perhaps as well, some parents just don’t think it’s an issue. Or that anyone who requires that their children dress neatly for special occasions – like attending a house of worship – is somehow out of date or out of touch.
Not giving a hoot whether I seem out of date, I consider issues like these. And, having two obstreperous and opinionated sons, I know exactly how difficult it can be to make such demands. But I also know that it is worth it – for parents and, especially, for the children. I expect to see my children appropriately dressed for the occasion – whether the occasion is exploring a wood or going to church. This isn’t about “what other people think” – it’s about learning to behave – eg dress in this example – in a way that is appropriate for what is being done.
What does it mean to dress appropriately for a special occasion? It means that one has made an effort, put some thought into one’s appearance and risen above the everyday. It also means that one has given outer expression to an inner gesture. For me, dressing neatly and nicely for church has nothing to do with conventions – it has to do with preparing to be receptive for a spiritual experience which does not happen every day. I have no problem with children dressing messily, eccentrically or absurdly (other than health considerations in very young children) most of the time, especially when it comes to teens. But when something special is happening, the outer – especially in children – should be in line with the inner. There is a unity here that needs to be learned – and, as we know, children learn best through experience, not through verbal exhortations or reasoned arguments.
On those rare occasions when my family attends a play or a concert or when we go out for dinner, we make an effort. No jeans with holes. No t-shirts with silly slogans or pictures. Hat off at the table. Not the sneakers covered in mud, thank you…. and so on. My sons are 15 and 17 – and even if they don’t always agree with what I and their father expect with regard to how they dress on these occasions, they respect us enough to acquiesce. And that too is an important life lesson.
And yes, I have had plenty of arguments, over the years, with my sons about this. So what? The dynamics of family life are never smooth. We learn through disagreement as much as we learn through agreement – maybe more. My sons are new to this life – I have been around the block a few times, I am their mother and part of my job is to impart values and expectations to them. Later they will use these to form their own values and expectations of life.
 In addition to “best clothes” and “decent clothes” my sons have always also had “play clothes” or, as they got older “everyday clothes.” Here is a boundary – you wear these clothes when you play out in the mud, and then when you are finished and come in, you wear these clothes. And these clothes are for special times – visits to grandma and so on. Accepting “dressing nicely” makes more sense when there are other gradations of clothing as well.
Little children do not come into the world with boundaries – they need to learn these. They need to find out what one does when, how one does it, and who they are and who everyone else in their world is. Just as the rhythms of in-breathing and out-breathing help a child find a balanced relationship to the active and quiet times of his day, so the wearing of certain clothes for certain times constitutes another boundary, another way – without moralizing, shouting or nagging – for children to learn appropriate behavior and to know where they are with tihngs. If we are wearing our nice clothes, then we know that we use our quiet voice and it is not the time to climb trees. If we are wearing our play clothes, we know that pretty much anything goes. Sun hats for summer and warm hats for winter (or the rest of the year for very young children) further help a child understand her world.
 So many parenting problems stem from issues with boundaries and expectations. By establishing clear rules about how we dress for various occasions – including when the children are allowed to eventually make their own choices within the acceptable framework – then we side step so many areas where arguments and angst can fester.  And, critically, this helps set a boundary for children to push against.

Which is why I do not believe that one should abandon such expectationswith ones teens. After toddlers, teens need boundaries to push against more than anyone! The boundaries are obviously different – and in-depth explanation and discussion with ones teens about boundaries is enormously important whereas with a toddler life “just is as it is” , verbal discussion being positively harmful. Just as toddlers are exploring their world in their toddler-fashion, so teens are exploring their rather larger and very much scarier world. They too need boundaries – “I am sorry dear – that shirt is just too low cut to wear to the restaurant… put on a different one or put something over it.” And of course, one should at the right moment then have a conversation with her about why she feels the need to display her breasts for all and sundry to observe….though probably in the middle of getting ready to go out isn’t the best time!
There lies her boundary . She has something to push against instead of experiencing the void of the Parent With No Opinion. She is experimenting with her sexuality, with peer expectations and with her own expectations – and she needs to know yours as well. She needs to know what you think and not to be left thrashing about with no moral compass.  She needs – even if she gives no indication of appreciating – your calm but clear thoughts on how, in this example, she dresses. One must speak with respect, kindness and A LOT OF HUMOR – but your teen needs to know what you think about such issues as revealing clothing and sexuality.  Phooey on all those popular notions of “that’s just what teens do” and “you’re disrespecting your teen if you question her choices”. Rubbish! She has not finished growing up and continues to need guidance – which at times needs to take the form of a non negotiable boundary. Obviously it’s sensitive – we’re talking about a gentle process here over time, not coming down like a ton of bricks on a girl who has decided to wear skimpy clothes.  We’re talking about respect and listening – but also of not absenting ones parental responsibilities.  There’s a conversation that needs to be had – probably several. And it takes great tact and patience to find the right time to have them. Further, listening into what your daughter says – as well as to what she does not say – is probably the most important part of this.
Finding oneself in relation to boundaries set by parents is a major part of growing up. We do our children no favors by depriving them of this.  We need to be brave and clear in our thinking and communication, whether we communicate pictorially with our little ones or in calm and thoughtful ways with our older children. We will not win all the popularity contests with our children and they will rage and scream against what we demand. But their inner muscles, those parts of them which will determine their ability to eventually navigate their own path in life as free adults, will be strengthened by our ability to set boundaries. The task of parenting – and of real education – is to help the child in the task of becoming more and more human, of developing into a fully formed human being. This isn’
t to say that babies or children aren’t human beings (!!) but if one considers the term “human being” as more akin to a verb than a noun, of “becoming a human being” , as more of a process than a finished goal, then one can see what I mean. Learning social skills, learning what is and isn’t appropriate, learning how to behave, is a part of this. And setting boundaries to enable our children to learn is the way we do this as parents.

Posted on April 9, 2009 in Family Life and Parenting

  • Grace says:

    Thanks for writing this, Donna! My husband and I have had the same conversation at our church. A few years ago, a boy was acting as an altar server in basketball shorts, flip-flops, and a Michael Jordan t-shirt. It was completely absurd! Thankfully, a new pastor has come to the church, and with him a few changes, including “uniforms” for the little altar servers. You can just see that they take so much more pride in their duties when they are wearing their special garb.
    And that’s really it — dressing appropriately for any occasion, whatever it is. Play clothes need to be acceptable for play (i.e. allowed to get dirty), swimming suits are worn when we swim, protective shoes when we hike, coats when it snows, etc. Therefore it follows that we dress nicely when we are in a setting that requires it. Thanks again for writing this.

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