My daughter came downstairs this morning before school wearing the weirdest, most unflattering outfit ever. How do I get her to change into something reasonable without starting WWIII?
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I once wore diaper pants, a bolero jacket, and a brooch to school in ninth grade. All at the same time. In my defense, I had a pretty big perm, so I needed volume on the lower half to add balance. And for a while I was really into wearing paint-spattered overalls with one strap hanging down. No, I was not in preschool during this phase.
I imagine if you were to flip through some of your childhood photo albums you might find a few gems of your own. Perhaps you’d even say to your own mom, “I can’t believe you let me dress like that!” Isn’t it funny how quickly we forget that (1) we, too, looked a little idiotic in middle school and (2) our parents weren’t “letting” us make those fashion faux pas. They were cringing and complaining right before our very eyes, but we weren’t seeing or hearing any of it.
We’ve covered how important it is for your kid to develop a unique identity during the middle school years. What could be an easier way to try on new identities than through trying on new clothes? Unfortunately, this means things start to get a little weird for a while.
The sooner you realize you cannot control your child’s sense of style, and that your child’s sense of style is not a reflection on you, the happier you’ll be. I happen to live in a city where seersucker suits and pastels have always been a big part of our fashion landscape. We might be the Lilly Pulitzer capital of the world, but I’ve always been more a black T-shirt and old jeans kind of girl. When my kids were little, I was shocked to see kindergartner boys come to school still dressed in monogrammed, smocked, gingham rompers. Once a mom said to me, “It’s just so hard to find them in his size!” and I had to suppress a spit take with my iced tea. They may have gotten away with it then, but forcing a tween into clothes they don’t like is nearly impossible. If you do win that battle, it comes with a price. Either you deal with the attitude you get in return, or you watch as your kid gives in to his lack of power and personal expression. I don’t like either outcome.
Your tween is no longer your best accessory, and as soon as your kid has an opinion on what she wants to wear, I encourage you to go with the flow.
Having said all of this about staying out of style preferences, you should absolutely have rules and guidelines about modesty and respect when it comes to dressing.
Decide on your own (or with the help of friends) a few rules you’ll have with regard to how your tween dresses. Then, well before you go shopping, talk with your son or daughter about the rules. If you wait until you’re at the mall to bring up what isn’t allowed, you’ll have a meltdown on your hands.
Here is one way to structure your kid’s fashion choices while still giving him freedom of choice. Think about types of events your child may need to attend and give him choices within these. I’ve broken my family’s events into three DEFCON-type categories, because sometimes it feels like I’m trying to avoid a possible World War III instead of fashion crises.
Dress Code DEFCON Levels:
DEFCON Three: A Level Three event is a free-for-all, and your clothes may even get ruined. Perhaps you are playing in the creek, building houses with Habitat for Humanity, or painting a masterpiece. Wear whatever you want that you won’t miss too much when it’s ripped, stained, or spoiled.
DEFCON Two: Most events in life are Level Two. Going to school, a friend’s house for dinner, or out to the movies are all Level Two.
- For girls: pair tight and loose. If you wear leggings, pair it with a loose top. If you wear a tank on top, pair it with a loose skirt. (This may be a guideline, not a rule.)
- No clothing with offensive or sexually suggestive words or images.
- Tanks are fine, but no camisoles without top shirts.
- No shorts or skirts that reveal too much when you bend over.
- No shirts that reveal too much when you lean forward. Use a camisole if needed.
- No odors or offensive stains.
DEFCON One: These are important or ritualized events like going to the theater, going to a party at your mom’s boss’s house, or having dinner at a fancy restaurant. Perhaps for your family it includes going to weekly worship or visiting a grandparent. Level Three would encompass everything included in Level Two plus:
- A collared shirt for boys.
- Nothing with writing on it.
- A dress, skirt, nice pants, or long “fancy” shorts for girls.
- Nothing that is purchased from an athletic store or in the athletic section.
- A pre-event shower.
Customize your DEFCON fashion levels as you see fit for your family. The important thing is that you have these rules established before you start trying on, or buying, clothes for middle school. Without some pre-shopping guidance, dressing room meltdowns often turn into “I hate my body!” or “You won’t let me wear anything!”
If you have these levels established before you go shopping, you can tell your kid to choose most things for Level Two and a few things for Level One. You can still give her leeway to express her style within Levels Two and One as long as she’s following the rules. If your kid has the levels printed out ahead of time, she can bring it to the dressing room with her. That’s easier than you saying “no” over and over, and her starting to cry; let her decide for herself what passes based on your list.
If you experience frequent clothing meltdowns at your house, here are some things you can do:
- Establish clothing guidelines and rules early, before a shopping trip.
- See your kid’s fashion choices as healthy experiments in choice and identity, not reflections on your parenting or your personal style.
- Be lenient when it comes to clothing choice, but enforce guidelines for appropriate choices depending on the occasion or event.
- Remember your own middle school fashion blunders and couch your clothing rules in empathy. “You know you have a lot of freedom when it comes to what you wear, but that is a little low when you bend over. Please add a tank under that and I won’t say another word except that, by the way, that skirt looks great on you.”
One closing thought: no matter what your child’s fashion choices, never relate clothing to body types. Your daughter doesn’t want to hear that she has “your hips” and you’ve found that looser skirts work better for your body type. She wants to wear the skinny jeans everyone else is wearing. Let her. You may think they look terrible, and they very well may, but wearing them for a season is going to do her less harm than hearing your voice for the next thirty years whenever she thinks her hips are too wide. She’ll figure out what works best for her body just like everyone else does, through trial and error after error after error.