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What [NOT] To Wear: Teaching Your Kids Self-Expression, Appropriateness and Fashion

How involved are you in your children's fashion decisions?

What is a parent's role in defining/dictating a child's fashion? From clothing, to hair, to piercings, to tattoos, where does a parent's input end and a child's right to self-expression begin?

Holly DeSouza
A parent recently told me they wish the Wakefield school system would adopt a dress code that was not as strict as a uniform but far more strict that what she has seen her first grade son’s classmates wearing.  As I look at my daughter after she demanded to dress herself today I lean towards town intervention to make my job as the enforcer easier.  To give you a visual, she is wearing a pair of bright blue capri yoga pants from last year’s gymnastics class with a striped shirt of many colors, and bright blue and purple Keen sandals.  Today was one day I was quite happy to stay in the backyard and play instead of doing any errands for fear someone would judge her by her outfit.  

I do not remember having complete authority over what I could wear when I was growing up; however,  I do remember being allowed to pick out my own clothes starting somewhere in elementary school.  There were loose guidelines on what I could buy.  I knew I had to wear season-appropriate and event-appropriate clothing and I don’t remember it being an issue.  That said, I remember my sister changing either on the bus or hitting the bathroom the minute she got to school to complete her outfit.  I also remember how packed the bathrooms were with girls and Cover Girl or Maybelline at the beginning of any given school day.

Is being slightly embarrassed by your child’s fashion sense worse than hindering them from showing their individuality?  I am not completely sure which option I like better.  I will put my foot down when it comes to anything permanent and make certain there is a family discussion before anything is done.  Case in point:  I truly believed my freshman year that three earring holes in each ear was the coolest and most fashionable.  Many years later my ears are back to the original one earring each with two scars.  Alas, I loved it at the time.   

I am leaning towards always allowing my daughter to express her individuality as long as it is within certain boundaries.  No tattoos or piercings of any kind that will lead towards deformities later in life.  No outfits that beg for sickness to follow (shorts and flip flops with a foot of snow on the ground).  Body parts that need to stay private will be covered at all times.  Beyond that, if she wants to pick out her own clothes and express her own style I will embrace it.  In the same vein, as a backup I will plan to run the majority of my errands when my husband is home. 

Tasha Schlake Festel
My daughter was such an easy baby. Laid-back, happy-go-lucky, flexible… I should have seen the warning signs! By the time she was 22 months, she was refusing – and I mean refusing – to wear jeans. There was no way I was getting those things on her body. And if I did manage to get them on her, swearing and sweating during the entire battle of wills and emotional endurance, she would demonstrate a level of manual dexterity rarely seen in toddlers, expertly unbuttoning, unzipping and removing the pants at mach speed. Eventually, I gave up on the jeans.

Her fashion rules have gotten more and more restrictive as she’s gotten older and more articulate, and continue to dictate her wardrobe at age 7, even despite the clothing choices of her fashion-forward friends. Jersey-knit only. No buttons, not even decorative. No long cuffs. No tights. No puffy sleeves. No sewn-on embellishments. No over-sized iron-ons. No empire waist. No strappy tanks. No lace, ribbons or frills. No seams across socks. No dress shoes. No cutesy sayings. No brand names. No leggings. No skirts without built-in shorts. And the list goes on. While she can give a valid (to her) excuse for why she won’t wear these things, I challenge you to find four seasons worth of school-appropriate clothing.

I firmly believe in choosing my battles when it comes to parenting, and I learned long ago that the “general appearance battle” is one that I don’t pick. Therefore, I am an expert on looking the other way when my kids get dressed. When they come down from their rooms dressed for school, I brace myself. I have learned that I can only make suggestions on what might match. I’m only their mother. I don’t actually know what I’m talking about.

My only rule is that they are dressed in a generally seasonally appropriate manner. Or that they accept the consequences of their decisions. I do not force them to wear jackets in the winter, nor do I force them to wear shorts in the summer. After all, it’s not my body. As I tell them, I am not at all uncomfortable when they are hot/cold. I advise, but do not dictate. Eventually they learn mommy isn’t always so dumb.

As the kids age, the battles over fashion will change. I tend to think that stuff is fleeting and not worth the fight. Clothing, makeup, hair – it is all impermanent. I will offer my opinion and my advice when asked, and I fully expect it to be disregarded.

The permanent stuff like piercings and tattoos, well, that’s a whole ’nother ball o’ wax. When I went to college and got a 4th earring in my left ear, I remember my mother making me promise that I wouldn’t do anything to my face. I thought that was such an odd request. But now I get it. I will make the same rule in my house: nothing on the face.

And while I don’t have anything against tattoos (note: I am ink-free, myself), I do think they are something only adults should get. That thing will be on you forever. Even when you’re 93. Once my 5-year-old boy asked me to get a spider web tattoo radiating from my elbow, because, you know, it’s cool. When I asked him what he would think if Oma, his great grandmother, had one, he thought it would be pretty silly. I told him I would be like Oma one day and still have a spider web on my arm. He decided that maybe I shouldn’t get one after all. Point made.

Personal appearance is part of personal expression. Kids will be kids. Fashions will change. I went through my fluorescent phase in the 80s. I had huge hair and claw bangs in junior high and high school. I wore ripped jeans and flannel in the grunge days of the 90s. Last year I got hot pink highlights in my hair. And this fall I wore jeggings.

My mom probably bit her tongue through each and every one of those phases. If she’d said something, I probably would have ignored her. I mean, what does she know anyway? She’s just my mom.

Regina Martine
In first grade, my oldest daughter assembled a lovely outfit of stripes, flowers and argyle tights for her school picture sitting. It was perfect. Not because it matched —which it definitely didn’t, but because that is exactly how she liked to dress in first grade and I thought her picture should reflect that. Why should I put her in an outfit that she would never choose and would probably hate? She loves her sense of style and is confident enough to wear what she wants and not care what anyone thinks.

I have very few rules about how my kids dress. Their clothes have to be clean, weather appropriate and occasion appropriate, ie no dance costumes to school, etc. But that is about it. Matching is optional.  Their “outfits” usually involve a wide variety of colors and occasionally multiple plaids, but it doesn’t bother me one bit. I would rather save my fashion interventions for when they want to wear cropped shirts to school or sweatpants that say “juicy” across the butt. Right now, our only clothing battles are about whether a favorite article of clothing is really too small to wear anymore or if  they need to wear a jacket outside. I want my kids to have the freedom to express themselves through their own style of dress and wear what they like. There will be bigger battles down the road.

So how much freedom should kids have to alter their appearance? My philosophy is basically “don’t do anything you can’t undo.” I have one triple pierced ear (child of the 80s) and it is no secret that I color my hair, but how much is too much — and at what age should it start? Neither of my girls have pierced ears and although I have told them they can have them pierced, neither of them really seems interested. When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to pierce my ears until I was sixteen and I couldn’t wait to do it. If I told my girls they couldn’t do it would they want to? I don’t know. Piercing anything other than ears is another matter. A boy in my oldest daughter’s class has a pierced lip. In the fourth grade.  I have seen middle school aged kids around town with those giant posts that leave dime-sized holes in their ears forever. Yuck. I am pretty sure a kid would need a parent’s permission to do that, and I can’t see ever allowing my kids to permanently disfigure themselves for the sake of fashion.  I really think tattooing and body piercing should wait until kids are over 18. Hopefully by the time my kids are that age, it will have fallen out of fashion.

Peggy Barresi
When I was seven years old I was forced to wear the ugliest pair of shoes in existence at my aunt’s wedding. They were pointy-toed, fabric flats the color of dried blood. I took tiny steps inside my floor-length dress all night in order to keep my shoes out of sight. Right then I vowed I would never force my own children to wear anything they despised.

I’m proud to say I’ve kept that promise. I also expanded it to include anything I despised. Parenthood has its privileges. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for self-expression. If my daughters wanted to wear purple and green socks with red sneakers, they went for it. I did not do much editing, mostly because I knew they would learn on their own. I did, however, teach and guide on what was appropriate. Mismatched clothing was okay. Trashy clothing not so much.

My girls never wore pants with writing across their behinds outside of the house or dance class. They did not show their stomachs unless they were in bathing suits. Dresses were dress length, not shirt length. I allowed high heels and make-up when they became teens. They wear nice clothes to attend the theater or when we go out for a nice dinner. They don’t wear flip flops or shorts to church. They’ve never complained or begged to break the rules. They grew up with a good understanding of what’s appropriate for different occasions. They also appreciate my opinion and my youngest, who is 15, will still not buy an outfit if I happen to dislike it, even it I tell her she’s the one who’s going to wear it, not me. 

There is one trend, however, I really wish would go away: Leggings. Yes, they wore them as kids, but they were just little stick girls back then. Now there are curves and booty involved. Leggings are not pants, yet many teens and women think they are. My current rule is “cover the behind.” If leggings are involved, then so must be a shirt that is long enough to cover the backside. This is non-negotiable. Otherwise, I pretty much trust them to make the right clothing choices by now.

Leah, who just turned 18 last Saturday, likes to torture me by reminding me that she can now get a tattoo or body piercing without my permission. I respond by telling her that I’m no longer legally required to support her and can kick her out of the house with no DSS consequences. I love the law, mine included.

Laurie Hunt
I am a long way off from tattoos and piercings other than first holes in ears but I have certainly had many battles about clothing with my girls – mainly my just turned 8-year-old. 

When both girls were little I never worried much about their fashion sense.  I didn’t, and still don’t, see the harm in a young child going out to do errands come May in their tattered 7-month-old Halloween costume that could use a good washing.  I love seeing little boys in Spiderman pj’s and little girls with a crazy mixture of stripes, plaids and polka dots.  I think it is a healthy form of expression.  My grade schooler still puts together some outfits that I don’t think match, however, I am not going to fight about what color socks she wears with a certain skirt… I’ll guide her but those types of decisions are hers to make.

I am not a fan of the sexed up grade schooler, can’t stand seeing tweens who have on a ton of makeup before they are even ready for a bra and I cringe when I see middle schoolers with the word PINK plastered across their backside – basically advertising for Victoria’s Secret.  I just don’t get it.   

My youngest came down for school one recent hot day with a pair of shorts and a cami-top with straps no wider than a bra strap… um, I don’t think so I told her!  That shirt was bought to wear underneath a sweater not as a top!  We had quite the disagreement about what was appropriate for school and she had a point – she goes to school in a 100-year-old brick building with no air conditioning and it is HOT in there!  She still was not allowed to leave the house with that top on.  You see, I am the adult – it is my job to raise her right, not my job to be her BFF.  I tell my kids time and time again – I’m evil, get used to it kid… you’ll never understand until you are 30 or 40 something and have a daughter of your own but for now you just have to know that in our home there are limits. 

Elizabeth Clancy June 08, 2011 at 06:06 PM
very good article, really enjoyed all the views :), my muself I still lay out what my daughter wears, she is only 7 after all, but she is starting to let me know her favorite clothes and I tend to get them washed in time for her to pick out something... they are still age appropriate and I agree with you Laurie, get used to it kid, I'm your Mom and one day , you'll thank me for dressing appropriately, I don't remember ever having issues with my Mom , as I was in a school uniform from 1st grade through to the end of high school... I also think that my daughter knows better then to mess with her Irish "Tiger Mom", (joke nickname from my husband for me lol), but I know that towards middle school , I am sure that I will have a few battles ahead of me lol.. I am realistic enough to know that.. Great articles ladies
Deb June 08, 2011 at 08:00 PM
Great article, as always. I'm pretty hands-off when it comes to fashion choices in our house. As long as it's clean, not stained, weather and age appropriate, things are fine. (oh, and nothing written across the rear-end. ick) We've had many trips to the grocery store in everything from full-on, floor-length "gown" princess regalia, fairy wings, the most wonderful alligator rain boots, to horribly mis-matched tops and leggins. Life is too short to stress about it. My girls are cursed with school uniforms (in public school - the horror if it all). I love how easy it makes it - so... wearing the blue dress, or the skirt with the polo today? Khaki pants and the blue polo or the red one? My younger girl wants nothing to do with pants. She's all about dresses and skirts for school, and in the winter goes nuts with the funky tights. My older daughter sighs and wears what she must, expressing her too-cool-for-school 13 yr old self with inked-up Chucks and nail polish of all colors. She wants a nose ring. No-effing-way. She wants her ear cartilage pierced. I repeat...no. She wanted 2nd earrings. We discussed and finally, I agreed. She's <sigh> a teenager now, mom. She has a 98 average in school and is just generally a great kid. But that's the end of piercings until she's off on her own. Who knows what the future will hold...
Diane Lee June 08, 2011 at 08:40 PM
This is one arguement I have not had to have with my 10 yr old daughter or 6 yr old son. My daughter picks out the outfit she wants to wear for the day, but the bottoms and tops are all ready match. She says she likes that it is easier for her to get ready (I do this for my son as well). I also seperate her clothes into weekend and school clothing. She has some short shorts that are fine for the weekend, but would not want her to wear them to school, same with pants, she has some with rips which are fine for the weekend, but not for school. For her 9th birthday she asked to get her ears pierced and I felt at that age she is old enough to care for them. I told her anyother piercing she can do once she turns 18 (and if a tatoo is what she wants at the age then fine). And last year she really wanted a bikini (I usually always bought tankinis, this year she picked out one of each). She can wear make-up just not to school. I guess we don't fight about this because there is nothing in her drawers that she couldn't wear. If she did wear weekend clothes to school its not the end of the world. Peggy I agree with the leggings thing. She wears leggings, but the butt needs to be covered.
Kimberly Bova McDonald June 08, 2011 at 11:05 PM
My mom would allow me to wear what I wanted provided it was occasion and age appropriate. I know I vexed her greatly with my choice to wear nothing but black for two whole years in middle school and my refusal from age 5 to 22 not to wear anything with a bow, flower, ruffle, or pattern on it no matter what! However - No tattoos or piercings (beyond the second hole in my ear at 15) allowed. My mother said even after I was 18 that if I wanted to live in her house and receive their financial support with college then no ink (I am still ink free at 29) Now for today's trends Leggings are not pants and words like juicy across the bottom are not sending an age appropriate message. The news coverage about the padded bikini top for 7 years old girls had me horrified.
Tasha Schlake Festel June 08, 2011 at 11:17 PM
The whole "sexing up" of kids is scary. It's getting harder and harder to find things (at reasonable prices) that are not totally trashy. Kids should look like kids, right?? The rule in our house about piercings - other than NOTHING ON THE FACE - is that you must wait until you are 10. (And 18 or no longer living at home if you are a boy!) Then you are old enough (in theory) to understand the permanence of the decision and to care for them on your own. When I told my daughter that she couldn't get her ears pierced until she was 10, she looked at me in horror. I said, "What, you want to get it earlier than that?" Her response, "NO! Do I really *have* to get them pierced??? I don't think I'll *ever* want to!" Funny kid.
Jillian Sallee June 08, 2011 at 11:36 PM
I guess I'm in the minority here, I decide what my 6 year old Nd my 4 year old wear every day. It is not a battle I am willing to have and I have made that clear to them. If we are leaving the house, I choose clothing and shoes. If we are home they can choose. As far as I'm concerned we both win, they get some choices sometime but they still need to be taught what looks appropriate and what does not. I like my kids to look nice and matchy matchy and when they do get to choose they tend to choose clothes that look great together. I know what they like and will try to go for what they want but my son isnt wearing gym shorts every day, khakis are also ok. So far we are ok, they know this is not a battle ground, I make the final decisions. As they get older I am sure we will renegotiate but I am still the boss :)
Jill Cook June 09, 2011 at 12:48 AM
Jill I am a mother of 3 beautiful girls. My 10yr old is what ever is comfortable, nike shorts and t-shirt for what ever game is being played now it s Bruins. although when the time is right she looks great for school, and I/ she loves it!! My dear Katie( 7yrs), lord give me strength, she is a typical girl, we lay out 2 outfits, however we change many times !! she looks always GREAT, but in her mind, not the right outfit for the day, ( example. not a gym outfit, or what if I get paint on it in art! )What we decided on ( katie and I )is she only has till 7:30 to get ready w/ her outfit. then I will chose, but we haven't have that happen yet! ( I will say that my girls do have some name brands, Justice, however Target, Macys and Kohls are in there closet) As my girls get older I will do my best to guide them, but I will always remember to pick my battles wisely, and always help them make/ teach them about good choices in life, My 3rd daughter is only 3 1/2 and she acts like both of them, and thats fine w/ me!!
Tasha Schlake Festel June 09, 2011 at 12:51 AM
@Jillian, you are squashing their spirits! Watch, your kids will be totally goth by 4th grade, no matter what you say. Take advantage of being the boss while you can. Your days are numbered... ;) BTW, as my girl gets older, she is getting better at matching her colors/patterns/styles. The boy is still easy and there just aren't as many mistakes to be made with a boy's wardrobe. However, he strongly resists anything with a collar. He'll go along with it for "dressy occasions" but he ain't happy about it. Eventually, peer pressure will get the best of them, for better or for worse. Hopefully it will cause chiquita to wear jeans before she graduates from high school!! :)
Jillian Sallee June 09, 2011 at 01:39 AM
Their spirits are fine believe me, they express themselves in lots of ways. I believe in taking care of the little things so that when the big things happen I am involved. My kids have more spirit and personality than most kids I know, and they look good doing it!!
Tasha Schlake Festel June 09, 2011 at 01:45 AM
Now you're just bragging... ;) XOXO!
Jillian Sallee June 09, 2011 at 01:53 AM
I am the perfect mom with the best dressed kids, didn't you get the memo?! Keep up :)
Susan Chanley June 09, 2011 at 11:43 AM
13 year old boys only wear hoodies in the winter (not real coats despite the weather.) They will pull off any hats or gloves and stuff them into their backpacks before admitting to wearing true weather gear. They will wear shorts in every season unless you threaten to take away their favorite video games. My 10 year old daughter seems to have no probem with my suggestions for clothes but I imagine middle school will challenge me with her:)
Tasha Schlake Festel June 09, 2011 at 04:09 PM
@Laurie - Reading your opinion just made me remember a time when my (then) 3.5 year old son insisted on wearing his muscly Spiderman costume - sans mask - for a walk to Cravings for ice cream one summer afternoon. My daughter and I walked while my son rode his Razor Scooter. You would not believe the number of honks and waves we got as we made our way through town. He was a mini celebrity for the afternoon. He loved it and everyone we encountered was so sweet and kind to him. Granted, he's a cute and well-mannered child and generally gets smiles wherever he goes, but that day the world was particularly sunny for my boy. :) He's never asked to do it again, but I'm really glad I have that sweet memory of him and his innocence and happy spirit.
Tasha Schlake Festel June 09, 2011 at 04:11 PM
Susan, 7 year old girls - at least the one in my house - also fights me on an appropriate coat. And gloves/hats? Forget about it! "Um, Mom, do I really have to wear these? None of the 4th graders have to..." Oy.
darlene stikeman June 09, 2011 at 05:18 PM
I just read an article on this, unfortunately, I can not remember where I saw it...but the quote regarding clothing was..."the three b's they had to follow....no butt, boobs or belly"...I thought it was cute. I only have boys and dealing with sports shirts, hoodies and too long shorts is getting old...however, so much easier than dealing with girls dressing....I think....just waiting on the expensive sneaker battle rearing it's ugly head....

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