Should Parents Impose a Dress Code?

How do parents decide which rules to set?

Posted Sep 13, 2012

Early this week, K.J. Dell'Antonia posed a question for her NY Times readers: Should parents impose a dress code?

She writes:

". . .  even the mother who spent her junior year of high school changing into her cool off-the-shoulder sweatshirt or her short-shorts might hesitate when her daughter wants to head to the school bus wearing nothing but a “pinnie” (a mesh tank with extra-large arm openings, usually used to designate opposing teams at sports practices) over her bra. And even the most vigorous defender of free speech might want to stop his son from sporting his retro “Beavis and Butt-Head” “School Sucks” shirt on the first day of class."

How do parents make decisions about what to regulate and what to leave alone?  One factor is their beliefs about the legitimacy of parental authority

Parental authority refers to parents' attempts to regulate or influence their children's or adolescents' behavior.  Most people - and certainly most children - believe parents have the right to set rules over some things but not over others.  For example, most people would agree that parents can (maybe should) set rules about not hitting siblings.  Most would also agree that it is an abuse of parental authority to chose their children's friends or tell them who to date.  

Work by my own research group and by Judith Smetana and her colleagues has shown that people classify issues in different domains.  This work has been carried out in the US, China, Chile, the Philippines, and Italy.  

The moral domain covers issues that are seen as fundamentally right or wrong and that are based on universal qualities (e.g., they are religiously based).  Not hitting others, not stealing and other similar issues are good examples of this domain.

The personal domain includes issues that only affect the individual.  For example, whether I wear a blue or red shirt or choice of friends are typically seen as in this domain.  

Prudential issues are safety related.  This includes issues like drinking, playing with matches, and other similar issues.

Conventional issues are those that are social conventions - calling parents Mom and Dad instead of Minnie and Frank, for example.  

Typically, children and parents agree that it is okay for parents to set rules about prudential and moral issues.  We gives parents a lot of leeway over rules about conventional issues.  But personal issues are out of bound.  Parents who set rules over personal issues are described by their children and by other parents as overstepping their authority.  The children of parents who do this tend to be depressed and describe their parents as intrusive.  

The problem with this is that - like most things - it's more complicated than that.  Many issues parents and children fight about are multi-facteted.  They include aspects of both the personal AND the prudential.  Or kids' define them as personal and parents as conventional.

And then they fight.  Parents say 'clean your room'.  The child says 'what do you care what my room looks like?  The door's closed.'

The parent defines a clean room as conventional, and thus okay to set rules about.  The child defines it as personal - and thus not okay.

They're both right.  But should a rule be set?

Should parents set dress codes?  

Dress codes are a great example of how this comes together.  How we dress is usually classed as a 'personal' issue.  It's about self-expression and it doesn't really affect anyone else.

But it also has aspects of the 'conventional' domain.  Many parents would not let their kids go to church in short shorts or a tee-shirt with an ad for liquor.  Not because it is morally wrong.  Rather, because it would offend people and be disrespectful.  We just don't do that.  

It might also have aspects of 'prudential'.  I know my mother would not let me go out in some of the outfits I wanted to go out in because she thought they were provocative and might get me into situations she just didn't think I was ready for.  (Probably true.)

One could argue that some clothes choices - like wearing "I hate school" or drug-related tee-shirts to school would be hurtful to teachers (a moral issue) or bias teachers against the wearer (a prudential concern, although the harm is not physical).

Many issues are like that.  No, I shouldn't choose my child's friends.  But if I think his friends are getting him in trouble, I may well take steps to discourage those friendships as much as I can.  And if my child is in a relationship I consider abusive, I certainly would.

What's a parent to do?  

One of the things that we have learned in our research is that when parents set rules kids' don't think are legitimate, kids tend to disobey them.  Often, they just lie or become secretive.  

So one thing that parents can do is to explain exactly why they think the issue is legitimately something that can set rules about.  This is why I see it as a safety issue.  This is why I think what you are doing is inconsiderate or offensive to other people, thus something that has moral as well as conventional dimensions.

The child may not agree.  But they are more like to understand.  And our research suggests that - surprisingly enough - older teens are more likely than younger ones to understand that parents often have good reasons for setting the rules they do.

Second, parents should be careful what they set rules about.  Parents who are authoritative - those who are both strict and warm - tend to allow their children considerable freedom as long as they stay without reasonable bounds.  So they don't set rules about what children have to wear.  But they do have rules about what they can't wear.  They allow children to choose their activities.  But they don't let them watch too many videos and children must have their homework done first.  

Setting limits like that - fairly constrained and often explained - has some pretty striking results.  Children and adolescents are more like to obey and less likely to lie.  They are more likely to respect their parents and they are more likely to like them.  They are more likely to say they share their parents' values and agree with them.  

To the parent of an adolescent - or even a child - that's pretty good.