Monday, April 7, 2014

Judging a Book by Its Cover...and Public Opinion

I have unique children.

It struck me again last week on our road trip when Matthew was willing to out himself as such on a few different occasions.  One day, after attending the Science Centre the day before and purchasing a t-shirt, he wore a largish, oval, 'glow-in-the-dark' sticker from the t-shirt on his forehead for the entire day.  The next day it was a pair of banana stickers that decorated his eyebrows for the better part of a day.  He certainly drew curious looks, but was oblivious to them all - he was just enjoying having the stickers that he liked close to him.  But perhaps the most interesting adornment of choice was the orange mesh bag that he wore on his head one day - the mesh that had enclosed the tiny oranges that we polished off.  He happily capped himself with the mesh pulled down low over his forehead and was totally ok with the look.  He wasn't actually trying to be different or to draw attention to himself...I honestly don't think it even dawned on him that others might be looking at him.  He was simply being himself, and his mama chose to let him be despite her own private feelings of misgiving as she saw the looks he garnered.

This is the same boy who spent our entire six-day vacation wearing the same pair of socks every day, even though both heels had holes in them, even though one entire set of five toes peeked out of a gaping hole on the other end.  And he delighted in those socks, declining a fresh pair after swims and showers and proclaiming that they fit him perfectly and that they were soft and comfy from the days of wearing.

Should I care about these things?  Well, to be honest, I do care, but what I'm really wondering if I should be doing something about these things?  I really question myself at times.  I have friends whose children are beautifully, or least neatly, dressed for all occasions, and have neatly trimmed hair - and they look lovely to me and sometimes I long for that, too.

Seeing Matthew this week with the stickers and the socks and, most strikingly, the mesh bag, reminded me of a conversation I had just a couple of weeks ago with friends about the face that we and our children present to the world.  How much do these things matter?  Really and truly.  The fact is that we will be judged by what we look like and what we wear; and no doubt this factors into the decision many parents make about how their children will dress.  We will be judged if we're wearing too much makeup, dress in goth, wear exclusively pants with holes in our knees, are fat, wear too much clothing or too little clothing, are brown- or white-skinned, have facial piercings or body tattoos, whatever the difference from the norm...we all garner judgment by how we look and by what we wear.

As a society, we do judge a book by its cover.  Despite saying that we shouldn't, we do.  We look at those around us and we see their sum total as being the person reflected on the outside, even though we know better and even though we all crave to be judged by what's on the inside.  We are all mask wearers, and we are all judged for them.

The question is:  How much should this matter?  I really don't have the right answer to this question.  I know how I am choosing to address this with my children, but I don't know if I'm doing the right thing.

When I was a child, I was forced to wear dresses to church, and my clothes never had holes in them.  My mother dressed us well, for the most part - mostly in clothes that she had made herself for us kids.  As a teen, I wore mostly store-bought clothes, and often felt pressured to look and dress a certain way (whether by family or friends).  I remember often walking out the front door to meet up with friends and my mother coming to the door to say good-bye and asking, with wrinkled nose, "you're going to wear that?"  Frequently she would offer a suggestion of a piece of clothing that she would prefer for me to wear.  I don't think ill of her for that - in fact, I think that was a pretty common thing in those days...perhaps it still is.

But here's the thing.  I don't recall ever changing my clothes at her request in those moments; what I remember is answering more defiantly, and with apparent conviction that I was totally fine with what I was wearing and I left the house as I was.

But the further truth is that her comments did bother me, despite my attitude on the face of it.  Despite the mask I wore.  I remember the insecurity of being out in those clothes that my mom (or others) didn't approve of and doubting myself and my own choices.

I understand,  as a mother myself now, that we might prefer our kids to portray a certain image - perhaps one that we ourselves are comfortable with and perhaps one that we feel best reflects us as parents.

Every single time I see Lizzie wearing one of her mis-matched outfits in public; when I see Matthew walking around, oblivious, with an orange mesh bag over his head; when I see Seth exiting the house with jeans sporting a wear-and-tear hole in those jeans he loves so much day after day after day; when I see Matthew's ever-lengthening, shaggy mess of hair...ever. single. time I see these things I am tempted to comment.  Tempted to ask them to please go and change their clothes, to please go and cut their hair, to please take the mesh bag off.  And every. single. time I remember the feeling of walking out the front door feeling just a little disapproved of, and know how that disapproval began to accumulate over time (of my own making, after a while) into what I now know to be part of my own baggage and mass of insecurities.  And so I deliberately close my mouth in front of my children, smile, and choose to run my fingers through that crazy hair, comment on Lizzie's growing fashion sense, and tell Seth that he must be playing hard these days to warrant those knee holes.  Slowly, painfully at times, I am learning with closed mouth to accept and appreciate my children for the unique, different-than-me children that they are.  I don't know if others will view them (or me) the same way - I rather doubt it because of our tendency to judge a book by its cover - but I choose this.

Thus, instead of battling on premise of the clothes issue as I used to, I have reduced to very few the clothing/hair rules in our household over the past two years.  My kids dress themselves, with very few exceptions or rules.  The exceptions might include the day we get photos taken; what we wear to church on Sundays (no sweats; clean clothes); and bigger occasion-type of events (eg. Christmas).  And I ask that Matthew comb his mop of hair before leaving the house...which frankly makes little difference once the fingers follow the path of the comb.

Where's the line?  When do we require certain 'uniforms' of our children as a sign of respect for the place we are going, the people we will meet?  How much do we need to care about the impression we (and our children) leave with others?  Is how our children dress a reflection of their parents and, if so, how much (if at all) should that matter?  What, if anything, do we need to teach our children about the perceptions people will have of them based on how they present themselves?  At what point do we simply let go of those things and let the chips fall where they may?

I'd so love your thoughts as I muddle through these questions.


  1. Hi Ruth - it's hard, isn't it, not to pass our baggage on to our kids? I have plenty myself around the appearance issue. We've boiled it down to a few key things in our house. 1. The Sniff Test: you have to give your clothing the sniff test. If a bad smell is emanating from your clothing, you shouldn't be wearing it. If you say you've given it the sniff test, but we can smell something funky, then your sniff test is suspect, and there's gonna be a parental over-ride. 2. If body parts are protruding from your socks, they go into the garbage. This one is a 'Mom' rule which applies equally to dad & kids. 3. Discuss: We always talk to the kids about perceptions. Most of the time, we don't really have a problem with how they choose to present themselves. We have a boy who, when he was younger, also liked to wear stickers on his forehead for days on end. Same with a beloved fire hat & safety goggles. Fine with us. We talked to him about what the other kids would say to him, etc. and how he could respond, etc. (We didn't homeschool) Certain choices will elicit certain responses in others. Once he was aware & ready to handle that, he was good to go. He made the exact same choices with confidence. 4. Modesty: depending on physique, certain items of clothing should be worn modestly: i.e. leggings with a long t-shirt. My daughter & I have discussed the reasons for this (we don't want others staring @ certain parts of her body) and we have made wardrobe choices accordingly. We only buy bathing suits with a skirt on the bottom, for example, which by now she really loves. When I asked her about that this year, as we're looking @ choices for a new suit, she told me that she doesn't want a suit without a skirt, as she doesn't want anyone to see her wedgie. :) I buy the same type of suit, so we match.

    Color combinations & all that stuff they learn as they go. My only other rule is that I have veto power on Sundays & special occasions. They bring a change of clothing on special occasions. My son calls it his 'handsome' clothes. Once grandma says 'You look so handsome', he can change into his regular stuff, and go back to his normal fun! My daughter is starting to enjoy getting dressed up, but is enough of a tomboy to still love getting back into her comfy clothes too. Hope this helps! Cindy

  2. Thanks Cindy, I DO find it helpful.

    I love the sniff test idea! Made me laugh out loud.

    And re: modesty, yes, I could have added that to what I wrote...we talk about modesty and, although I don't have the same swimsuit rule for Lizzie, we're pretty careful on that front (length of shorts, shirts, etc etc).

    I think I do need to have a sock rule! lol I let that one go b/c we were on vacation, but I think those beloved socks will find a new home shortly - the garbage bin!

    We've had some discussions about other people's perceptions of us based on choices we make about our appearance, but we could do more on that front - NOT, for example, at a particular moment when the kids have made a clothing choice that might garner looks, but at a different time when we can have the conversation without someone feeling badly about a moment's choice. If that makes sense. Despite all of the in depth conversations we have around here, I haven't gone too far down this road at this point (hence knowing that we could do more on this front); I've been really reluctant, especially with my younger two, to go here a lot yet - mostly because, for example, Seth cares a little too MUCH about what others think at times and I'd love for him to express more individuality/uniqueness...I think it's a little baggage piece from his past.

    Anyway, good food for thought. ANd I like the 'handsome clothes' notion - great expression!

    Hugs, Cindy, and thanks.


  3. Oh, I love the sniff test! I think I need that one on the way in TO my classroom -and most of them are young enough I should not have to worry about that much yet but seem to need to.
    I can relate to your comment about Seth caring too much about what others think. C is like that about clothing, although seems to finally be relaxing about that a bit. It's a challenge isn't it to provide structure and guidance without being too limiting and causing image hang ups. There are times I am thankful that my kids are both boys and we are not facing the many modesty challenges that young girls are being dealt by society right now. But then I look at the shirts that many of the boys in my school wear these days and wonder how the negative messages they scream helps the feelings of healthy self worth (or lack there of). I like the criteria that you and Mrs Changstein gave, but. I think I would also add a veto power to messages on clothing that are negative about/toward the wearer or others (ok, and school, a personal pet peeve to do with the clothes my students wear).
    So much to think about as a parent...

    1. The sniff test will work for us at some point, but not yet - my kids don't stink yet, even when they play hard for hours at a time. So that one will come into play eventually, but not quite yet.

      Re: veto power for clothes that have negative messages - yes, I would agree. Because I'm still buying the clothes, we don't have this issue yet either...but I fully agree, and wish that parents everywhere would exercise veto power in this regard.

      Yes, it's totally a challenge to provide structure and guidance without being too limiting or creating baggage. I think this is why I'm in a muddle about what, if anything, I should be doing differently.

      Though as I wrote my blog post, and read the comments, I became more and more ok with the approach that I'm taking.

      Thanks, Ellen...always so glad to hear your voice!


    2. I only wish that my "daytime kiddos" aromatic contributions to our classroom environment were due to plenty of exercise, but unfortunately much of it is as a result of less than stellar hygiene practice (& a many week built up of those aromas).
      As for the shirts, every so often I get quite frustrated with parents, retail, and society for promoting these negative messages. Some parents in our school community encourage the attitudes and wearing/purchasing of this clothing. Where in the chain of decision making for stores is the decision made to create and sell these items? Why as a society is this accepted and/or encouraged? (Uh oh. I feel a rant coming on. I better stop now!)
      My mom has a line that I first heard her say when my oldest sister's boys were little (and they're now in their 20s). My mom now reminds me when I face parenting challenges or dilemmas. She just calmly says "We parent the best we can at any given moment, given the time and place we are at at that moment." It is her subtle reminder that there are so many variables that come in to play as we journey through parenting and trying to help our children be the best they can be, and to continue to keep working at it. Somehow this seems to fit with this discussion. Don't know why.

    3. I love that quote from your helps with the hindsight-is-20-20 dilemma, because even though we might wish in hindsight to have done things better, given where we were at at the time, sometimes it really is the best we can do. Thx for sharing.

      A bit shocked re: the hygiene practices you're mentioning...I'm sure you feel like telling parents to get the kids into a shower if they stink...and wash their clothes!!! That would make me a little crazy, I think...though what do I know yet about how hard it might be to get kids into the shower, not having stinky kids yet myself!

      And feel free to rant away...then I wouldn't be the only one!!


  4. Lovely stories!! Being a person who has constant desire to dress like a hippy in clothes that look like rags... well... thumbs up to you, Ruth! My friend always tells me that I dress "too wooly". I'm starting to see it myself when i look in the mirror. But i feel really cozy and warm in nice soft clothes. Isn't that what matters?! I love Cindy's suggestions. Definitely if it stinks, it should go in the laundry and have a body break. It will get even softer! And maybe there are certain times that certain clothes are definitely required - this is something that we learn as cultural beings. Sometimes we even mess up as grown ups! Cindy's comments about talking with children about their own choice of clothing and actions, and that of others, is important. There was a story in the news the other day that infuriated and saddened me. It was about 9 year old boy in North Carolina who bullied for carrying his My Little Pony backpack to school. The school banned his backpack because it was a 'bully trigger'. Of course there was outrage against the school and so much support for the child from across the continent so the school reversed its decision and the backpack can come to school and the NC schools will attempt to look more at bullying. The comments in support of the boy, on so many news sites, were so amazing and overwhelming. I think most people would be applauding you, based on that. I think these are some of the most important conversations we can have with children... ahead of time. I told you before about my friend's son who had VERY long hair from the time he was about 4 until about 14. He either wore it down, long, or in a long braid. He did look very beautiful, like a girl, with that thick amazing long hair. He loved it. Once in awhile they could convince him to trim it and he would have a little cry and anxiety. One day he decided to cut it and that was that. Not it is short and very groomed. He also had odd choice in clothes and loved to go out dressed in costumes. Once we went shopping at the mall and he was wearing some kind of dracula cape but his mom told him he could not wear the mask. He did have it in his pocket and snuck it out once in awhile when we weren't watching. YOu can imagine this little boy in this black cape with lace around the collar and his long hair trailing behind us in the mall. It did get a lot of attention, both in looks and comments, because it looked like some kind of weird dress. But he truly felt amazing and powerful in his cape in his own imagination. Many comments were about him being a girl. He would just shrug at them and say "i'm a boy" and get on with things. Now he is an amazing, confident (but still shy) young man in grade 12, accepted into one of the country's most prestigious theatre schools for university. I look back and see the seeds of this in his long hair (Iike Goldy Hawn, that's what he wanted), his love for dressing up, etc. I respected my friend so much for calmly taking Dracula around in the mall with her, even though, like you, that is the very last thing she wanted to do! I often had children come to school in very interesting clothes. I similarly loved their parents so much for just letting them be themselves. One 9 year old often came dressed as Davy Crocket, racoon hat and all! I'm not kidding. I also could always tell the kids that were allowed to dress themselves, and the ones who had clothes chosen for them. The ones who dressed themselves had a wonderful freedom and confidence in many other areas of their lives. So, onwards! The mesh bag hat is truly fantastic. I hope you took a photo.

    1. This afternoon, I had a conversation with my mom, who read my blog post this afternoon. I'd warned her it was coming out because it had mention of her in it, and we had an interesting conversation today. She told me how, on three different occasions recently, she had walked into a store and been helped by the same staff person there on all three occasions. On the first two occasions, when my mom described herself as being dressed not too nicely, the worker treated her terribly - bordering on rudeness. My mom came to dread going into the store. On her third visit, she happened to be dressed up with nice jewellery on, and that same staff person treated her beautifully, even offering to carry her purchases out to the car for her. Very different interactions, seemingly based on clothing/appearance. My mom commented that perhaps Matthew needed to learn this with my guidance. But I inwardly railed against that and said that my preference would be for him to have that experience himself first at some point (when he's not oblivious to it!), which would lead to discussion about it and a more informed (though not necessarily different) choice on the matter of self presentation. Don't we all learn better when it's hands on experience that teaches us?? Anyway, that's what kept going through my head as my mom and I talked. But what's interesting about this approach is that it wouldn't be ahead of time, as you suggested. I'm wondering why you think it would be better for these conversations to happen always ahead of time. My fear in having a lot of conversations about it now (while he's still oblivious) is that it'll wreck his innocence about it and cause him to worry about public perception of him far more than I'd want him to (him being a worrier). Thoughts??

      I think my Matthew would quite enjoy you, Jackie! You'd have much more than hippy-like clothing in common, but perhaps that, too!

      Yes, I did read about the boy from North Carolina, though not the comments that followed it from the public. I felt quite torn about it...not about the school's response (I couldn't believe the initial decree that the backpack had to stay home and the initial refusal to deal with the other children involved, etc etc), but more about what the parents' roles were in all of this. They supported, as I would, their son's desire to carry the backpack; but did they also have conversations with him about what others might think and how much (if at all) that should matter? Should they, at some point, have suggested that he not take the backpack to school?

      I love the Dracula story. Yes, Matthew used to go out in full costume as well - though not often over the past couple of years. His self expression these days seems oriented around the clothing that he wants to wear (sweats, raggedy shirts and holey socks) and adorning himself with things - like the stickers and mesh bag. And yes, I did take a picture of the mesh bag on his head, but can't post it b/c I haven't been able to download my pictures to my computer for almost three months! I'm currently looking into a new computer and that'll solve my picture-posting dilemma!

      Bottom line for me (and I become more convinced of this the more I'm writing!) is that I want for my kids what you've seen in those of your students who've been allowed to dress as they wished - freedom and confidence and the ability to be themselves, even in the face of differing expectations. So maybe I'm not in much inner turmoil about this topic after all!

      Anyway, thanks Jackie! Hugs,


  5. Hmmm you've put out lots to think about Ruth. We have rules about veto power for Sundays and special occasions. We also have said no to socks with holes. My eight year-old son has such smelly feet that I can tell when he has not changed his socks after 1 day. It is hard to get my eight-year -olds and 11 year-old to shower. And we do have a schedule for when they shower. I do sometimes find myself commenting on what my kids are wearing and encouraging them to change. My youngest likes to wear shirts that are way too big and also crazy combinations of colours and patterns. I do try to let my kids wear whatever, most of the time. I'm not sure that everything I do is the right thing but you have put out lots to think about.

    1. Thanks Eileen - yes, smelly feet would have me issuing ultimatums as well!

      And I'm glad I've given you something to think about!! I'm not sure that there IS one right answer but it's good to share ideas so that we can figure out alternatives that might work in our households.

      Anyway, thanks, and have a great start to your day, Eileen!