Thursday, August 12, 2010

Dealing with School Dress Codes: The Big Picture

The following article was first published in Tri-State Family Magazine (Distributed by The Herald Dispatch, Huntington, WV). Copyright © 2008 by Dennis E. Bills.

School dress codes are notoriously controversial: “How dare schools tell me how I should dress! They should stay out of my family’s business!”  Educators do not enjoy enforcing them, and parents enjoy it even less.   Students enjoy it least of all. 
    Most students handle dress codes very well. But occasionally dress codes irritate everyone. Parents and teachers would be much more comfortable letting children make their own decisions. We do not enjoy the disappointment and frustration of children who have been told to wear something they do not like. But a visit to schools, dances, malls, or around town quickly reveals that many teens gravitate toward shabbiness, immodesty, and exorbitant fads and fashions. Parents who have higher expectations for their children have the right to expect a difference at school.  
    When dress codes become irritating and intrusive, it is important to remember the big picture. Dress codes serve many different purposes, but most address at least three concerns that many families hold in common:  decorum, modesty, and priority.
    Most people believe that certain types of clothes are more appropriate than others for different environments or activities. For instance, what one wears for yard work differs from what one wears to work in an office. Likewise, what one wears to school will often differ from what one wears to the mall on Saturdays. Common sense says that dressing up for a job interview can greatly impact the impressions of a potential employer. Learning to dress appropriately for the occasion serves children well in life. Schools desire children to understand that sharp, neat attire is perfectly appropriate for school. As an academic environment, school is an excellent place to practice discernment in dress decorum. 
    Most parents are concerned that their children learn some standard of modesty. Since this standard obviously differs from family to family, schools tend to draw the lines as best they can. Frequently, these lines are not popular, so parents lives are sometimes disrupted by unhappy children.  
    It may be helpful to realize that schools do not intend to judge or condemn the preferences of individual families through dress codes. Educators agree that each family has the right to apply its own standards as it sees fit. However, since families vary greatly in their understanding of what is modest, schools develop reasonable and common expectations that they hope will be agreeable to the majority of their families. Producing a standard for modesty that is acceptable to most families is difficult but necessary. 
    Clothing needs to be seen in proper perspective. Fads and fashions sometimes overwhelm all sense of what really matters in life.  None of us objects to wearing nice, up-to-date clothes, but fads and fashions can easily be overblown and superficial. Learning to place clothing in proper perspective is a valuable life-skill that encourages priorities independent of the whims and shallowness of celebrity or popularity.  
    Learning to put fads and fashions in their proper place helps our students stay focused on their primary reasons for attending school. Instead of “expressing their individuality” by means of dress (one of the most frequent dress code objections I have encountered), students should see the greater value of expressing their individuality through the focused development of personality, character, knowledge, reason, and communication skills. When a student applies himself or herself to studies, a unique personality will come through loud and clear in valuable, impacting ways. 
The Big Picture: Principles are More Important than Rules
    As parents, we desire our children to internalize these principles and make them their own so they can face life with significant social, developmental, and occupational advantages.  Eventually students make their own decisions without someone looking over their shoulder telling them what to wear. That is the time when the value of these principles will be most evident.   
    If adults could rely on children to always use discernment, dress codes would not be necessary. But we ask them where they are going on Friday nights, we tell them to be back by a certain time, and we refuse to allow them to watch certain things on TV or at the movies until they are mature enough. Our instruction as parents is crucial to helping children develop discernment. Over time, their character develops, and they learn to live by principle rather than by parental or school dress codes. Gradually we loosen the strictures and allow them to test the waters, to succeed, and to fail, and to learn how to live life as blossoming adults. As young adults, they will take the principles of their youth with them and leave the rules behind. This is one reason teachers are expected to model dress code principles, but are not themselves subject to the same dress code rules. Rather than being a stumbling block to children and families (“Why don’t the teachers have to dress like we do?!”), teachers should become examples of what it means to live by principle. 
    When the dress code becomes a point of contention, schools and families need to remind themselves of the big picture that sometimes gets lost in the details: the principles underlying the dress code are more important than the rules themselves. Students also need to remember that, in the big picture, being asked to dress a certain way for a few hours a day is not really as arduous as it might seem. Hopefully, the “big picture” perspective will help parents and faculty enforce dress codes with balance and understanding and will help students understand the heart behind the rules. Of all the lessons to be learned in school, decorum, modesty, and priority in dress are not the most important. But understanding these principles will help us all keep the dress code in its proper place so that it does not become a bigger issue than it should.

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