Care and Feeding

What Are You Wearing?!

My smart, independent daughter thinks it’s OK to wear halter tops and short shorts to school. What can I do?

A woman looks horrified.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by master1305/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 14-year-old daughter is a ninth grader at a private school she attends on a significant financial scholarship. She’s done well there and has made friends, participated in activities, and maintained honor-roll grades. My daughter is smart and creative and athletic. And most days she dresses like she’s going to a nightclub. Her preferred outfits are cropped tank tops or halters, short shorts, high heels, bare midriffs or backs or shoulders, exposed bra straps.

Please give me some advice on balancing being body positive, feminist, and encouraging her to find her own sense of style with also guiding her toward appropriate clothing choices for school! I am bending over backward not to use the words my mother would certainly have used, including “trashy,” “cheap,” or God forbid, “slutty”—but when she asks my opinion (and she does most days), and I tell her that I think a particular outfit shows too much skin, isn’t appropriate for a school environment, or might be a better choice for a party, she becomes deeply offended and angry, accuses me of slut-shaming (which I am incredibly careful not to do), or tells me that everyone at her school dresses like that. (They don’t.) She will also rage that I have now ruined her enjoyment of that outfit. Usually this all happens in the half-hour or so before we need to leave for school, so on a large number of mornings we are both furious as well as late by the time we get out the door.

I am really struggling with this—I truly appreciate that she is strong and confident in her body, and I have no issue with her going out with friends wearing a backless shirt, a bare midriff, a short skirt, etc. And I don’t buy into the sexist thinking surrounding most school dress codes (her school doesn’t have one). But at the end of the day, I still think she should dress for school in a respectful way—and that there’s a world of difference between how one dresses for work/school/church and beach/party/play. How do I communicate this distinction to my daughter, whose prime objective is fitting in with the (mainly extremely wealthy and status conscious) kids at her school, without her feeling like I am asking her to dress in a flour sack?

—You’re Wearing That?

Dear YWT,

What you’re describing here is a person who is pretty sure of how she wants to present to the world, and who is not super keen to make space for other people’s opinions about it—which on balance sounds like exactly what you’d want for your kid. The fact that you don’t like it is a problem for you, not for her. She is capable over time of learning, growing, and understanding how her choice of outward presentation affects her lived experience. She may even have some insight into her own experience that you don’t have—what with having lived in her body every day of her life even without you there—so it makes sense that your input is falling on deaf ears.

You need to back up. Whether you’re right or wrong here no longer matters. What does matter is that what you’re doing is not helping and is having the effect of making her feel more judged, more shamed, less safe, less trusted, and less confident in herself and her choices. Which is in fact the exact opposite of body positivity.

You have told her what you think. You have told her again and again. And again. She has heard it, and is processing it, and part of that processing for her involves tuning you out. It is out of your hands at this point, and continuing to bludgeon this child with your opinion is nowhere near worth the damage it’s causing in your relationship. When she asks you what you think about her outfit, tell her you think she’s wonderful and you love her. When she asks if something shows too much skin, tell her that you probably wouldn’t wear it, but as long as she feels safe and comfortable with it, more power to her. You don’t need to fight over this. Reality will fight with her enough. Love her, support her, and let her be herself. You’ll be surprised at how quickly she grows into a responsible and clear-sighted adult if you let her do so rather than make her.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My middle school daughter is in the local after-school theater program. Every year they put on a musical that requires hundreds of hours of practice; normally it’s a great production.

My problem is this year the director chose the musical Hairspray Jr. While Hairspray is one of my favorite movies of all time, we live in a small town and the cast is almost entirely white. The plot of Hairspray is deeply tied to racial segregation in Baltimore, so half the cast would be portraying a different race, including my daughter.

I gave the director the benefit of the doubt, figuring he would address it in a way that would be respectful to the very real struggle of that community. Unfortunately, several months down the road, the director announced he will not be addressing the issue at all. He has a letter from the writers that essentially says that it would be reverse racism to deny a white person the opportunity to portray a black person. While they are prohibited from changing the coloring of anyone’s face, i.e., no blackface, they will not be addressing it in any other way. We are supposed to “suspend our disbelief” and just ignore the fact that white children are playing black children.

This seems deeply wrong. All the writers and the director are all white, and don’t have the right to say it’s OK. I raised my concerns with the director, and he is unmoved. He feels not actually doing blackface makes it OK, a position I profoundly disagree with. Just removing the face paint doesn’t remove the racism from minstrel shows, and it doesn’t make this show’s all-white cast acceptable either.

I gave my daughter the option to drop the production, and she has chosen to stay in it, and we have come up with ways to honor those whose story we will be telling. At the same time, as a parent, I’m furious that I’m put in this position and have considered writing a letter to the school board asking for the dismissal of the director. However, doing so would likely end any chance of my daughter being able to meaningfully participate in the activity she loves, not to mention exposing her to bullying from her classmates.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand my struggles are minimal compared to those portrayed in the musical Hairspray. I recognize that is my own privilege, but it’s my daughter who likely would be punished if we complained publicly. Can you think of any way to address this problem, without my daughter being punished for it?

—Tightrope Parent

Dear Tightrope Parent,

Whoop-de-fucking-doo that the creators of Hairspray Jr. are cool with this, but it doesn’t mean you have to be. Honestly, they’re just some folks who wrote a play, not national authorities on race and casting. So, if you have some problems with their idea that you can cast the play this way—and it sounds like you do—then I think you’re well within your rights to express that.

The real problem you face is how much to make this an issue given the fact that your daughter has to navigate the rest of her schooling in this environment. The first step is to talk with her about it. Not like you’re demanding her input but about the overall issues—about why you think it’s important to speak up when people are being harmed and how that sometimes means taking a social risk. You should hear, I mean really hear, what she thinks about it before saying that you are thinking about sending an email to the school board to express concern about it. Maybe she’ll be like, “OH MY GOD WHATEVER YOU DO DON’T DO THAT!!” or maybe she’ll just be like, “Huh, whatever.” You don’t know. You may still decide to go forward, but at least you will do so knowing the cost, rather than speculating on it.

Secondly, I get that this is upsetting for you, but recommending they fire the guy sounds more like you’re mad at him than that you want to resolve the issue in a way that has to do with the issue. The director is not the problem here. He should know better, sure, but it’s hard because he’s got an actual letter from the creators backing up his position. The problem here is that it’s harmful for people of color to have a whole community of white kids being raised to think that race is something they can (quite literally) play at. If you were really about the issue, you might contact the publisher or even the creators themselves to suggest why it is that they might rethink their position on this. Taking that more direct approach has the added benefit of side-stepping head-to-head combat with the director of this show, which it sounds like you’re trying to avoid.

This is an important issue, and it demands a thoughtful approach. You’re not going to get your daughter to drop out of the show, and it doesn’t sound like you’re going to get the show canceled, which means you’ll get neither immediate relief nor a feeling of righteousness. With that out of the way, you are now free to think carefully and caringly about the issues at hand and how you might make the most true, long-lasting, and meaningful impact.

• If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I run a toy drive for foster children and had the unwrapped gifts collected in bags in my home office. My 4-year-old daughter caught wind of them, and on Saturday morning, I heard the distinct sound of a new battery-operated toy. I asked her what she was playing with, and she immediately ran to her room, where I discovered that she had opened about 10 toys and hid the packaging behind her chair. We talked about trust, honesty, and giving to others who are less fortunate, and I thought we were fine.

Then, Sunday morning, we discovered that she had opened more toys and restolen the ones I confiscated. We talked more about honesty and how the misdeed is not nearly as hurtful as lying about it. Then, Monday morning she kept disappearing to her room, because she had re-restolen some dolls and purses.

We don’t have a lot of cartoon character toys, which were the majority of what she took. Have I made her crave them so much by limiting them that she was driven to theft? Do we let her “earn” back one toy to keep to show her that we’re not 1,000 percent withholding? What’s the next step in teaching self-discipline and honesty after this (epic) stumble?

—Ocean’s 4

Dear O4,

The bad news is that your kid is behaving like an amoral, low-down, irredeemable thief. The good news is that she isn’t an amoral, low-down, irredeemable thief; she’s just acting that way because she’s 4, and 4-year-olds are nonsensical by design. Resist the urge to attach adult meaning to child behavior. She is stealing toys because she wants toys and feels happy to have them, not because she is a sociopath who doesn’t care about the feelings of others. No need to panic. Just address the situation one step at a time.

First of all, go ahead and lock the door. I mean, why go through this over and over? She’s clearly not able to regulate her behavior, and each time she gets a case of the sticky fingers, you have to go through a whole existential crisis about your parenting. None of this is necessary. Remove temptation.

Secondly, if she likes the toys, why don’t you buy her one? Again, I stress that she’s doing nothing wrong by liking the toys in question. Get this kid some cartoon character toys! You haven’t made her crave them by enforcing rules, but you’ve made her crave them by showing them to her, all shiny and beautiful and new, and then telling her they’re for every other kid except her. Honesty, trust, privilege, class—these are complicated concepts for a 4-year-old brain, and I wouldn’t take it personally that her grasp on them is less than complete. You’ve got to keep it all a little simpler. Lock the toys up. Get her some of her own she can enjoy. Let her go with you, if you can, to drop off the toys for the toy drive. Let her feel some ownership over the whole process. I have no doubt you’re raising a good kid. I hope you don’t either.


Ask a Teacher

I send my daughter to a Montessori school for pre-K. Given that I’m already shelling out $11,000 for my daughter’s education, I was surprised when I received the following letter: “As a part of our Teacher Appreciation Week activities next week, the PTO Appreciation Committee is pleased to coordinate the purchase of a gift card to a local merchant of each teacher’s choice.” Why is this institution not capable of showing my “appreciation” with the money I already give them? This feels like a shakedown.