Dressing for acceptance?

October 05,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

At last week's marathon IEP meeting, as we were talking about L.'s social skills and discussing all the teasing that's been going on, one of L.'s teachers made the suggestion--and she prefaced this with "I know this is going to be controversial but..."--that perhaps we could encourage L. to dress in ways that would make him stand-out less, just to smooth the path for him a little more. Of course my initial, gut reaction--probably the one you just had--screamed out how ridiculous and wrong this suggestion was, and how strongly such an idea goes against what Scott and I work hard to teach our children: that they should be proud of their individuality, their own budding sense of style (or lack thereof, which is a style in and of itself, isn't it?), their sense of who they are in the space they have created for themselves. As the teacher spoke on, suggesting gym shorts with logos, or snazzy tees with images representative of 5th grade popular culture, the room swam a little around me and I had to try hard to keep my tongue in check. I caught a look from Scott, one that said, let it go, let's not get sidetracked here and he was right. We weren't there to talk about L.'s clothes, we were there to talk about far more serious issues, ones we wanted resolved in the short amount of time we had allotted to us for this conference. The phrase "pick your battles" never applies so well to anything as it does to IEP meetings. I don't really, truly think for a minute that it feels like the right parenting move to nudge my child into fashion conformity to make up for the intolerance or unkindness of others. However, a teeny-tiny, frightened and uncertain part of me does wonder if something as simple as clothing could make the difference in L.'s school day--in the here and now and beyond, once we hit those tumultuous and twisted days of middle school. I think about the recent headlines in the news, and those destroyed, unhappy children who thought they had nowhere to turn, and who couldn't see past the pain of the here and now and I wonder irrationally about those little things, clothes, the right haircut, the right lunch, the right accessories--how insignificant and foolish they might seem and yet... I told a friend the other day about the teacher's remarks. She had another perspective, a more practical one: Perhaps, she suggested, if we are willing to teach our kids about good hygiene and manners and other social behaviors in the interest of making them "acceptable" member of society, then we should also guide our kids into making good decisions about how to dress, and what to wear. And while she agreed that it's wrong on principle to point a child in the direction of more fashionably acceptable clothing, sometimes you have to give a little, she said, in the interest of the greater good. I'm still completely uncomfortable with the teacher's suggestion, and the whole clothing issue in general is muddied by the fact that L.'s sensory issues and OCD dictate what he wears and when and where he wears it. But I squirm inside to think that any attempts to nudge him in the direction of more "popular" and acceptable clothing might send him the message that his individuality doesn't matter and, moreover, that there is something "wrong" with the way he dresses now. The moment a child questions why you want them to change something about themselves, you then have to explain what it is about them that needs to change, and crossing over in this terrain is, I think, dangerous indeed. What do you think? Do you help your own kids make better "fashion" choices for themselves? Where do you draw the line when it comes to encouraging your child's sense of individuality, while protecting them from unkindness at school?