With the warm weather finally here, the idea of dress codes for children seems to have become a hot (no pun intended) topic. Let me be clear that I am not commenting directly on recent events regarding dress codes at other schools, because without having all of the information, I am very hesitant to give my take. I am going to give my opinion on the dress code at my Catholic elementary school.

Here’s what went out in our June newsletter:

“As the daily temperature rises to warmer levels, a review of appropriate clothing would seem to be in order. Both boys and girls should be aware that shorts/skirts should be appropriate in length; that tops should be appropriate in design and any written message. Please use this guide when deciding on appropriate dress for the school day:

  •  ripped or torn clothing (including cut offs) should not be worn 
  • clothing with pictures/slogans/words/logos promoting drugs, alcohol, racism, violence, etc. is not permitted 
  • shorts/skirts should approach the knee, (arm to the side should not touch bare skin) 
  • all tops should cover to at least the shoulders; halter, tank tops or spaghetti straps are not appropriate.
  • midriff/stomach must be covered 
  • exposure of undergarments is not permitted”

These rules apply to girls AND boys in every grade. With style as it is, the boys do not tend to push the limits with short length (though it happens), but some do with shirts, the straps of which need to be three fingers wide to be permissible, just like the girls’ tops (which takes the issue of visible bra straps right off the table).

Yes, the dress code makes it a bit harder to shop. I have two girls who attend my school, and I get it. Mind you, they are young and still do what they’re told (for the most part) when it comes to their wardrobe, and I understand that it’s much harder to get your thirteen year old to dress in shorts that “aren’t cool”. But I also know that we are the parents, and that should mean something. As for price, I’m looking at several pairs of very stylish Old Navy Bermudas for $16 at the moment (online, free shipping coast-to-coast, and no this is not a promotion). If kids absolutely must display their favourite brand-name or logo (again, I’m not at this phase yet), let them have it splashed across a properly-sized t-shirt.

From what I’ve read, some schools require long pants, which would not be reasonable in our 50 year old building with noticeable lack of air conditioning. But you can’t tell me that kids will immediately overheat and combust (even outside) with an extra inch of fabric over their shoulders or their thighs.

Every morning, I stop in front of the mirror and double-check what I’m wearing as well. Not only to set a good example for the kids, but because I think being a teacher does call for a certain level of apparel.

I talked to my class about dress code yesterday, and the reasons for it. God gave us our bodies and they are beautiful top to bottom, but it demonstrates modesty (which just happens to be our School Board’s Fruit of the Holy Spirit for the month of June) to have certain areas covered up more than others at school. I told them that when I’m at home or with friends, I wear swimsuits, tank tops, and sometimes shorts or dresses that don’t reach the tips of my fingers with my arms at my sides, because they’re appropriate in those situations. This is my workplace, and it is also theirs. Many other workplaces have dress code requirements, some even specific uniforms, which they will likely discover when they get their first part-time jobs. Do parents fight that fact that Tim Hortons has the nerve to tell their child what to wear?

And yes, I wear a bra (wow, I’m getting really personal here), as do many girls at our school, and I would venture almost all girls at secondary. Yes, we should be proud of our bodies and not ashamed of supportive female undergarments. But are they appropriate to be displayed in a workplace? Do you often see your bank teller’s bra straps, or those of your postal worker, restaurant server (Hooters waitresses excepted), doctor or shopkeeper? (Note that the boys are not allowed to flash us their underwear above saggy waistbands either.)

To me (and all of the staff I spoke with) this is absolutely not about girls distracting the boys (perhaps if other schools were able to provide a better reason than this, it wouldn’t have caused such controversy), or an issue of sexualization (though we did have some trouble convincing a parent that her daughter’s track pants covered in the Playboy bunny logo weren’t appropriate). And believe me, the dress code is not just about the girls. One staff member told the story of an incident (at another school) where a male elementary student was wearing a t-shirt reading “Be gentle. It’s my first time.” The teacher asked the student, straight-faced, what the shirt meant.

“You know…”
“No, I don’t. What does it mean?”
“You know…my first time…like, sex?”
“Right. Go to the washroom and turn it inside out and don’t wear it to school again.”

On rare occasions, we see slogans relating to alcohol, drugs, or violence of some kind, which are understandably (I hope!) not allowed in our school setting either.

Some parents make a very valid argument that all of these rules shouldn’t apply to our littlest students (like it or not, there is a difference between a four year old in short shorts and a 14 year old). However, I would argue that kindergarten is not too soon to begin teaching a sense of modesty, being part of a community, and (not least importantly) following the rules of the institution to which you belong.

As an added bonus, many of our graduates continue on to the local Catholic secondary school, which requires a uniform, so this is particularly good training for them.

As a teacher and a parent of girls, I fully support having rules about children’s clothing in place at school. As for enforcing them…that’s a whole ‘nother blog post.

4 comments on “In Defense of School Dress Codes”

  1. Holy Cow I love this post today.
    I have never had problems with my children sticking to the school dress code, they know the rules clearly and I have overheard "your shorts are too short" said to my sons as well as my daughter (however that usually represents a recent growth spurt).
    I recall wearing a hand-me down shirt to school in about grade 5 that was a cow's udder. I don't recall if it had words on it, but I recall thinking it was risque funny, until the principal questioned it. That shirt disappeared when I threw it into the laundry bin, never to be seen again.
    I SHUDDER at the sexualization (if that is a word) of little girls. I didn't dress my baby girl in triagle string bikinis, and have NEVER bought my daughter anything with a cherry on it. Sometimes I have to go out of my way to avoid them, but there was some movie with Mark Whalberg 'popping a girl's cherry' and I can't bring myself to put that on my child (in fact I have never dress that way either- i feel it represents some overt sexual inuendo that I probably don't understand).

    When my daughter was younger I allowed spagetti straps on dresses and some tank tops but in the past few years I have become more hesitant. All too soon we'll be hiding bra straps and I just don't see that her grandfather, neighbor or uncle (or teacher, principal, classmates' parent) need to know what colour her bra is, or even that she is wearing a bra…or not wearing a bra…or anything about her undergarments. This may be anti-feminist and I get that. I teach my daughter to be strong and have good self esteem etc too, but I just need her to know that flashing her body around doesn't represent feminism and power.
    A few years ago when she was about 7 or 8 she told me she wanted to dress sexy. She had heard the term used and wanted to try it out. I asked her what it means to dress sexy and she didn't have a good answer. So, like the Way Too Open mother I am, I reminded her about the physical act of intercourse, and told her dressing sexy was suggesting that you would like to participate in that act. Then I told her she didn't even have a birth canal yet, so it just didn't make sense (I definately explain things to meet my needs as a mother, a recent conversation explaining that well, yeah she does have a birth canal left her a little confused but I HATE the V-word so I did what worked). I explained that sometimes Mommy dresses sexy when she and Daddy go out on a date, but thats ok because Mommy is a grown up and grown up Mommies can express that to their husband that they love and to no one else in the world, ever (again, I do what I need to do).
    Interestingly, as she does grow into the age where I anticipated fights about clothing, she refused to wear the (conservative)Speedo (I said conservative!) tankini I purchased for her, and has opted for the racer-back swim suit instead. I think that is great. She goes to layered looks, and if she wears a tank top it is under a button up top and is always tasteful without me having to natter.
    I have also altered my own dress code. In my professional life I think the Morman practice of wearing that white undergarment that goes from shoulders to knees is about perfect. If you can see beyond that imaginary line, I need to change. I have had colleauges who bend over and we can all see their sparkley g-string. This makes me uncomfortable, but I imagine it confuses older patients who also see it. In the past I have been known to bare my tummy in a bikini and wear little strappy tops but this summer I selected a full tank top that probably fit the three finger rule for swimming (this might have something to do with the tummy having turned into a belly). I guess I have subconsciously decided to lead by example. If my little girl seems me flashing my voluptuous cleavage all over the place, she may just think that is a reasonable thing to do. And all those sparkley g-strings…what to do with those!

  2. Just curious….if your board/school were forcing you to buy from one supplier would you have issue with it?
    Last year was our first year of having to wear uniforms at our Elementary school. I do not support uniforms at any level for many reasons however, a dress code of navy blue bottoms and white tops i could have lived with. The problem i have is when a board forces parents to buy from ONE supplier. They spout social justice as their reasoning behind this. I wonder how many of the staff/boards clothing are bought from socially responsible retailers.
    So again I ask you, if you were forced to buy from one supplier only where the products are not seasonally adjusted (fabric) would you have an issue with it?
    Would love to hear your thoughts.

  3. Hmm, that's a tricky question. This post is about having specifications regarding short length/slogans etc. on any of the clothing (purchased wherever) that young students wear to school. I'm not sure how I feel about "uniforms" per se at elementary.

    In high school, our dress code was initiated in Grade 10 and looking back now I think it was a great idea, and I'm glad my daughters will have that at their high school. (There are multiple items with the school logo as part of the uniform, and they are all purchased from a set company.)

    Your issue seems a bit different though so I'm hesitant to weigh in on it…but I do appreciate your comment!

  4. I guess we can agree to disagree. I don't think the issues are all that different. I guess I asked because you have an option to buy whatever weighted material you see fit seasonally. We don't have that option.
    And I guess my other issue around the whole uniform policy is….especially for Catholic Schools…..if we're all so Catholic and following Catholic values then why should a uniform even be needed? Apparently we're not all "good" Catholic role models.
    Just a thought!

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