Clothing and Character?

Just have to share this post.  

Honestly, as my children get older and more aware of their counterparts, I will have to be careful about taking them to the mall. Last month, I met friends with their kids for lunch at the mall and then proceeded to take some of the kids  home with me to play.  During the short jaunt from the food court back to the parking lot, we were barraged with sexual images aimed at the youth: “Look left, kids!  Oops, look to the right!  Yikes!  Close your eyes!”  

 

Call me a prude but the indecency that screams out from these store displays (and half-naked models in the doorways distributing perfume samples) is yet another lure to compromise our children’s hearts and minds.  Sometimes, I focus on my holy tirade and shake my righteous fists while complaining about “what’s happening to our culture and children!?”  But, this article has given me much to think about.  It’s much easier to have a legalistic criterion (length, flesh-to-fabric ratio etc) than it is to biblically measure the moral impact of a piece of clothing.  Perhaps some might think I’m taking it to far.  That’s why I’m glad for this article.  Read it and leave some comments for discussion!

 

Clothing and the Character of the Child
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 31ST, 2008

     Guest Post by Dr. Timothy Paul Jones

Our daughter Hannah is rapidly closing in on thirteen years of age. She is tall for her age. Her dark curls and tawny skin mirror the features of the birthparents who brought her to a Romanian orphanage when she was eight months old. Hannah has been part of our family since she was seven years old. She is the apple of her Daddy’s eye, the princess of her Daddy’s heart, and—at this moment—she’s in need of some new clothes. In our household, this means a Daddy-Daughter Date Day, primarily because, in our family, Dad tends to have more patience than Mom when it comes to the quest for appropriate clothing.

And so here I am, meandering into a local mall, hoping that this year’s range of suitable selections is better than last year’s.

It isn’t.

The jeans that are long enough for Hannah’s ever-lengthening legs seem to have gained this extra length by trimming too many inches off the top. The sweatpants that fit her best have “PINK” emblazoned across the backside. And the messages that glitter on the chests of several otherwise-appropriate shirts lead to immediate vetoes from our household’s executive branch: “I Want What I Want Now,” one hoodie declares, while a nearby t-shirt boasts, “I Have an Attitude and I Know How to Use It.” “Sooner or Later I’ll Get What I Want,” another sweatshirt announces. Interestingly, the brand names on the tags are “Personal Identity” and “Self Esteem”—almost as if Erik Erikson and Sigmund Freud crept in during the manufacturing process and retagged the clothes to resolve adolescent girls’ supposed identity crises. To Hannah’s credit, she takes it all in good humor, knowing from past experience that, once a veto has been declared, her father will not budge.

By this point, a good many readers have likely identified me as some sort of development-squelching fundamentalist prude. I’ve heard the protests before, as a pastor, children’s minister, and youth minister—more from parents, oddly enough, than from children: “Come on, it’s just the kids’ clothes. Why make such a big deal about it? Let them wear what everyone else is wearing! If we don’t let them dress that way, they won’t be able to fit in.”

I’ve even had one parent couch his protest in evangelistic terms: “If I don’t let my daughter wear the same clothes as everyone else, no one will listen to her when she tries to witness at school.” Somehow, I cannot imagine that the low-slung waistline on his daughter’s jeans led any male in her school to anything but the most prurient interest in God’s created order.

So why am I so unyielding on this issue?

Simply this: The clothes that our children wear do not merely cover the nakedness of their flesh; they shape and reflect the contours of our children’s souls. (emphasis mine) What I encourage my child to wear is a statement not merely of fashion but of theology and axiology—and this link between our theology and our wardrobes is not a recent phenomenon.

The foliage that Adam and Eve clutched against their groins in the shadow of the Tree of Knowledge made a profoundly theological declaration. Those mute leaves pronounced the primal couple’s intent to cover their sins with their own efforts and experiences. In this, those leafy aprons spoke in unison with the Gnostics of the second century, with Pelagius in the fourth, and with the theological liberalism of the modern era, all seeking some path to holiness other than divine propitiation. The second ensemble of clothing in the Garden of Eden was no less theological—the flesh and fleece of a freshly-slaughtered beast, a covering given by grace which declared beyond any doubt the divinely-ordained link between sin and death.

Later in the Torah, the Israelites received a command from God to stitch tzitzitin the corners of their robes, entwining a cerulean thread in each tassel. And what was the rationale for this divinely-ordained fashion statement? “That when you shall see them, you may remember all the commandments of the Lord, and not follow your own thoughts and eyes, going astray after others” (Num. 15:39). What the children of Israel wore on their bodies reflected and shaped the disposition of their souls.

This principle is no less true for my child this afternoon at Oxmoor Mall.

The sweatpants with “PINK” plastered across the posterior declare far more than a child’s preferred pastel hue; they present as public property a part of the body that ought to be preserved as private property. The three-inch gap between shirt and jeans devalues the child by turning her body into a tool to attract the opposite gender’s attention instead of a vessel of beauty for the glory of God.

The t-shirt with “I Love My Dad Cuz He Spoils Me” emblazoned across the chest links love with what I can get out of a relationship—and lays the foundation for the relational disposition that has landed millions of couples in divorce court over the past half-century. “My Smile Gets Me What I Want” scrawled up the leg of a pair of pajamas implies that it is acceptable to exploit physical beauty as a tool to manipulate others. When a sweatshirt declares “Remember Me: I’ll Be Famous,” this comes with a tacit implication that the superficiality of celebrity might be a valid and viable goal for life. The hoodie that reads “I May Be Small But I’m the Boss” presents rebellion against parental authority as something to elicit a lighthearted smirk instead of loving discipline.

Please understand my point here: I am not claiming that clothing, in itself, causes children to behave badly—that would be tantamount to declaring it was the presence of fruit in the garden that caused Adam and Eve to sin. And I’m not suggesting that children’s clothing must be unfashionable for them to be holy. What I am suggesting is that these fusions of cotton, polyester, and iron-on transfers are not values-neutral. They are declarations of what we believe, what we value, and what we expect our children to believe and to value.

So what can parents do?

(1) Set clear standards and say no. This isn’t easy. A few weeks ago, I said noto a ballet leotard because it didn’t meet our family’s standards for modesty. No other leotards were available at the dance supply store. As such, my veto resulted in a rather unpleasant chain of events that ended with some crying and behavioral consequences—and with a clear awareness that we will not compromise our family’s standards. Truthfully, I wanted to say yes. In the short term, it would have resulted in far less stress to give the go-ahead to that particular leotard. But, as Hannah’s father, I bear primary responsibility before God for my child’s spiritual formation. And so I said no—firmly, gently, in love—because the long-term building of Hannah’s character matters more to me than the momentary calm that compromise could have achieved.

(2) Recognize that what is emblazoned on your children’s clothing is likely to be expressed at some point in their behavior. If the child’s t-shirt says “Blame It On My Sister,” why are parents shocked when their son eventually tries to avoid responsibility for his actions, even if that means resorting to deception? If you purchase clothes for your son that declare his ideal day to consist of sleeping, eating, and playing video games, why be surprised when he’s living in your basement two decades from now, still expecting you to pay his bills while he sleeps, eats, and plays video games? “But what the shirts say—they’re just joking,” parents respond. “You’re not supposed to take them seriously!” And perhaps the clothing manufacturers do intend such statements to be taken with a grain of salt. But history suggests that, what one generation smirks at, the next generation accepts as an inescapable state of affairs.

(3) Admit that the need for peer popularity is over-rated. Another primary cop-out from parents: “But my child has to dress this way to fit in at school.” In the first place, such a statement implies that the authority of the peer group matters more than the wisdom of the parents or the Word of God. In the second place, this implies that you would want your offspring to “fit” into a group that evidently bases its valuation of a child on that child’s clothing. Yet, even if we bypass these faulty foundational principles, there’s still a problem with this line of thinking: The idea that this type of peer popularity is necessary for healthy development is a recent phenomenon, rooted more in the social function of the American school system than in any perennial truths about human nature. In fact, despite decades of family fragmentation, the way that a child is accepted in his or her family remains far more important for the child’s development than acceptance or rejection at school. I’m not suggesting here that you should work to make your child unpopular with peers—but such acceptance is far less crucial than we’ve been led to believe.

And so Hannah and I traipsed out of the department stores and headed upstairs to the Chinese buffet, carrying far fewer outfits than we first intended—but they are well-chosen, stylish yet modest and devoid of devaluing messages. Now, if someone can locate a light-blue leotard for my child that isn’t low-cut in the top or high-cut in the legs, we’ll be set for one more year.

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