It seems that every so often during the school year, there is a news story about a student who is sent home for a dress code violation. The sound byte goes something like this: “parents and students are upset about the girl who had to leave school because her shirt had only spaghetti straps.” This is followed by interviews with other students at the school who say things like “it’s totally not inappropriate, she shouldn’t have had to leave,” or parents who say “this is ridiculous, doesn’t the school have bigger problems to worry about?”
The debate over what kids should be allowed to wear produces discussions about whether or not strict dress codes sexualize girls, how much individual expression should be allowed in schools, and how much input the school should have over that expression. All interesting discussions, and all things that have nothing to do with why I hate these stories. I never paid much attention to them until my daughter had friends over and they were talking about a news story that aired while they were watching television. A middle-school girl and her parents were upset because she was sent home after the school said that her skirt was too short. Just as in the sound byte described above, the girl insisted there was nothing wrong with her skirt. Her parents said that the school was singling their daughter out, and said the skirt’s length was just fine, they saw her leave for school that morning and deemed it appropriate. My daughter and her friends all sided with this girl and her family, and shared stories about how silly the school’s dress code is and why should schools care, etc.
I realized in that moment that regardless of students’ or parents’ opinions of dress code issues, we are missing huge teaching moments here, and encouraging a spirit of entitlement. Here’s where I (and I think others) have missed the mark and what I would do differently:
Look at the big picture. Is the dress code explained in the student handbook? Students and parents can have whatever opinion they choose about whether or not a particular item of clothing is appropriate or not, but the bottom line is the rule may clearly be laid out in the handbook. For instance, in the situation with the skirt, it was reported that the handbook states that skirts must be no more than four inches above the knee. So all involved are certainly allowed to feel that this child looked fine, but as they packed her lunch and kissed her goodbye, there was already something in writing that said this would be a problem.
As a teachable moment the next time a story about dress code comes up, I would remind my daughter that when she joined the softball team, the coach told everyone up front that they must wear cleats to practice. Even if she preferred to wear tennis shoes, she wouldn’t think of showing up in them, so why is this any different? Bottom line – you had better find out if you already agreed to a rule or standard before you contradict it.
Did we learn to throw a tantrum or to develop assertiveness skills? I’d like my daughter to see the difference between someone being interviewed outside their home or school complaining about the ridiculous rules about clothes (while the dress code standards sit, apparently unread), and someone who felt strongly enough about something to take action about it. Wouldn’t it be lovely to hear from a student or students who went to the principal and asked about a dress code item? Where are the interviews of students who set up a meeting and, in addition to expressing their opinion, learned the other side of the issue? How about asking why a specific part of the dress code exists, and discussing any possible compromises or changes?
I cannot emphasize enough that I don’t care one bit about what is considered appropriate dress for school in this post. What I care about is the fact that these stories tend to make kids think that if they don’t like something, they should just rebel and complain that someone actually held them accountable. This kind of attitude bleeds into other parts of our lives, and produces a lack of respect for authority and a disregard for leadership and assertiveness skills. My daughter has a current events class, and the teacher has told the class that he doesn’t care what their opinion on any subject is – what he cares about is their ability to learn the other side of the argument, and respectfully articulate their position. I love this!
This is certainly not the hardest hitting topic of the moment, or maybe even the hour! In psychology we often say that it’s important not to focus on content, but context. As with so many things in life, this is not about the dress code, it’s about the underlying lessons and qualities that can be learned when dealing with this topic. Where else do you think we are missing opportunities for teachable moments?