Modesty and Smart Clothing Choices: Teaching Our Kids to Be Seen for Who They Are
By Jenny Webb and Mattie Barron
Let’s face it: we all feel better when we like what we are wearing. When I was a college student, I found that for me, if I went to class in sloppy sweats and a ponytail, I didn’t feel as confident throughout the day. I tended to be a bit sluggish and off my game. But if I made a point to wear an outfit that fit who I wanted to be—outgoing, confident, and attractive—then I felt like I could take on the world, even during finals!
It’s easy today to find a wide range of clothing styles and fashions. How can we teach our kids to make smart clothing choices that will help give them confidence and not distract them throughout their day?
In the past, people often referred to society’s rules and boundaries regarding clothing by using the term “modesty.” The word “modesty” is related to the idea of keeping something within “moderation”, or being “measured” in one’s approach, which doesn’t sound too bad. As the term began to be used to refer to how one dressed, it was often used to specifically indicate dressing in order to avoid provoking a sexual response in another person. Again, what’s the problem there, right?
Well, the problem is that using “modesty” this way tends to give some people the idea that they don’t have to deal with their own sexual responses, and historically, that has led to societies where people, often women and girls, have had their own choices about how they can dress and interact with other people socially restricted, or even removed completely.
This seems like an awful lot of historical and cultural baggage attached to one term. So let’s ditch the term “modesty” for these conversations with our kids. We want to help educate them so they can make smart, context-appropriate clothing choices that will empower them through a combination of self-respect and self-confidence!
What’s a smart clothing choice?
A smart clothing choice is one that “investigates” the context where the clothes will be worn, and asks Who, Where, Why, What, and How. When our kids understand how to be smart about their clothes, they can choose clothing that is functional, comfortable, attractive, and even an expression of their personal style.
Wait, doesn’t everyone have the same boundaries when it comes to clothes?
Well, yes and no. Even though fashion and culture vary widely throughout the world, for the most part, everyone agrees on one boundary: “cover your butt!” In other words, don’t expose your genitals. There are practical reasons for this—no one wants their genitals to be harmed! So unless you are currently living in a nudist colony, the one boundary everyone agrees on is to keep those genitals protected and covered.
It’s important to recognize that the rest of the boundaries can vary widely depending on where you live and who you live with. Families can set their own boundaries regarding clothing. What’s ok in one family may not be ok in another. That’s fine. When we respect others’ clothing choices, we give them the freedom to respect our own clothing choices as well.
So, how do I talk about making these smart choices with my kids?
Start by reassuring your child that they are loved and worth protecting. That’s why you’re having this conversation to begin with. Then, teach them to run through the following checklist: WHO is wearing and seeing the clothes, WHERE will the clothes be worn, WHY are the clothes being worn, WHAT are the positives and negatives about the clothes being worn, and HOW well will these clothes work to meet their needs.
WHO: Who is wearing these clothes? Does the clothing fit them physically? Does it fit their personality? Who else sees these clothes?
There is, in my opinion, nothing worse than shoes that are just a smidge too small. They squeeze my feet, are uncomfortable, give me blisters, and keep me from walking around and doing the things I want to do. We need our clothes t fit well rather than a pain and a distraction,and having clothes that fit our sense of fashion and style counts too!
As our kids grow and mature, they will become more aware that other people may notice their clothing choices. While we are not responsible for how others react to our clothing, it’s worth taking the time to think through whether we are comfortable with what is shown or emphasized by our clothing (this can be a part of the body, or a message or slogan on the clothing itself). Making conscious clothing choices helps empower kids to prepare for others’ reactions.
- Wear clothes that you like, that fit you, and that express who you are
- When we choose outfits that fit well in size, personality and style, we are showing others that we respect ourselves for who we are
- (For older kids) How will you react if someone chooses to comment on your clothing?
WHERE: Where will the clothes be worn? Outside? Inside? What will the weather or temperature be like there?
Our clothes exist in the first place because our bodies need a little help to deal with the elements. We don’t wear shorts and t-shirts in the middle of a snowstorm because we would freeze. We don’t wear jeans and sweatshirts to swim in the ocean because we might be unable to swim effectively and it would be dangerous.
When we take the physical context where the clothes will be worn into consideration, we show respect for our surroundings.
- Wear clothing that is appropriate for the physical environment you will be in
- Wear clothing that lets you live your life without being adversely affected by the weather
- Can you do the things you want and need to do in your outfit without worrying about your clothes?
WHY: Why are these clothes being worn? Does the reason match the event(s) they’re being worn to?
Different events have different purposes, and can require different clothing choices. Think about what we wear to a funeral. Now compare that to what we wear to a wedding. Are the clothes the same? Probably not, even if both were taking place inside a church. We change what we wear in order to signal respect for the various events we go to and to let others know that we understand where we are and what’s going on. When we wear something outside the expectation for the event, it can distract both ourselves and others from the event itself.
This is true even when the event is casual—think how you would feel if you went over to a friend’s house to watch a movie Friday night and you wore a professional business suit. I promise you’d be a bit distracted from the event of just hanging out!
- Wear clothing fits the social norms and expectations of the event
- It’s ok to ask for help if you aren’t sure what kind of clothes are usually worn at an event!
WHAT: What are the positives and negatives about the clothes being worn?
Everything has two sides: my son might love the look of his new Minecraft shirt, but the itchy tag might drive him nuts while he’s trying to concentrate at school, and as a result, he might spend the whole day distracted by his shirt and fail his spelling test. (Totally hypothetical of course …) Or my daughter might wear her favorite hoodie to the campfire, but then spend the whole evening worried about getting marshmallow and chocolate stains on it rather than simply enjoying the s’mores.
For older kids, this question can be another chance to think about the kinds of actions and comments others may have in response to their outfit. Sometimes we want a response—we want to make a statement!—and that’s part of the fun of choosing our clothes. Help teens think about potential positive and negative reactions to give them confidence in their clothing choices.
- What we wear will always have positive aspects and possibly negative aspects as well
- Mentally review the pros and cons in order to prepare for them
HOW: How well will these clothes work to meet their needs?
By the time your kids reach HOW, they should have a good idea about what their clothing needs to do for a particular situation. It should keep them protected from the elements, keep the comfortable and able to participate in the activities they have planned, not distract them, and, with any luck, help them enjoy the fun of self expression. Take this last moment to double check: have your kids ask themselves What do I need most out of my outfit today? and How well do my clothes work to meet that need?
- Assess your needs: what do you need and want your clothing to do, and how well can it do it?
- Are there any things you could modify or change that would improve your choice?
- Is there anything else you might need later on?
It’s important to remember as parents that we are helping our kids grow up by teaching them to be thoughtful about their choices in life—learning to make smart clothing choices is a skill, and just like any other skill, it requires practice. There will be mistakes to learn from; it’s important that we react with love and encouragement to give our kids a safe space and room to grow. Under most circumstances, clothing choices are not a life or death matter, so keep things in perspective and empower your kids to make smart clothing choices!
Compliment them when they make smart clothing choices—positive reinforcement!
Be a role model—make smart clothing choices in your own life.
Mix things up: have the parent who normally doesn’t shop for kids’ clothing take a kid out shopping for a different perspective.
Move, move, move when trying things on!
Take the time to talk as a family about your own family guidelines regarding clothing.
Additional Conversation Starters
Do your clothes distract you from what you have to do during the day?
Is it comfortable enough that you don’t have to think about what you are wearing?
Do your clothes distract others and are you ok with receiving that attention?
How will you handle things if you receive attention or reactions that you don’t want or that you are not comfortable with?
Are you meeting the basic boundary? (Are your genitals protected and covered?)
If you’re unhappy with your clothing, what would you change about it?
What are the reasons you selected these clothes to wear today?
What kinds of clothes do you like best and why?
What do your clothes tell people about you? That you are friendly? Respectful? Self-confident? Strong? Brave? Funny? Kind? Creative? Careful?
For more great conversation starters and ideas for connecting with your kids check out 30 Days to a Stronger Child, available on Amazon. The book includes great questions, lessons and challenges to help your kids learn to fill their emotional, intellectual, social, physical and spiritual “accounts.” Some of the topics include: respect, accountability, positive self-talk, empathy, addiction, gratitude, critical thinking, and many more–30 lessons in all. All our our awesome books can be found here.
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Jenny Webb is an editor and publications production specialist who has worked in the industry since 2002. She graduated from Brigham Young University with an MA in comparative literature and has worked with a variety of clients ranging from international academic journals to indie science fiction authors. Born and raised in Bellevue, Washington, she currently lives in Seattle with her husband, Nick, and their two children.
Mattie Barron is a senior at Brigham Young University-Idaho pursuing a Bachelor’s of Science in Marriage and Family Studies. She is from Tri-cities, WA and has a passion to help create and ignite strong families. She hopes to work in the school system and aid in the support of children and families.
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