Don't We Have This Modesty Thing Backwards?

by | May 12, 2016 | Blog, Parenting, Parenting Advice, You Ask, Kendra Answers | 37 comments

I tend to get mailbag questions in bunches. All of a sudden, I’ll get a flurry of questions on similar topics. Maybe it’s Facebook? Maybe it’s some sort of hive-mind phenomenon? But there you have it. It’s a thing.

The most recent wave was on kids and modesty. And the questions got me wondering myself . . .

The two angles of most questions seem to be . . .

“How do you handle different-gender siblings with regards to modesty etc.?
My son and daughter are almost four years apart, but they both still feel very
young to me. They love taking a bath together, and I never think twice about changing them around each other etc. But, my husband thinks my son might be getting too old for that… I’ve also wondered about possibly having them share a room some time in the future and whether or not that would be “awkward.”
I know your kids don’t have that big of a gap between them, but they certainly span that distance…. How do you handle stuff like that? Is it just a non-issue or do you have firm family “rules” or “boundaries”?
I’d love to hear your take.”

and . . .

“At what age do you start being concerned about the length of dresses/skirts/shorts of your daughters?

This is new territory for me. When I think of dressing modestly my 1st thought as a bigger busted gal is to not show cleavage. I’m short, worrying about revealing leg usually isn’t an issue. But then I married a guy that’s 6’3″ & my daughter has inherited his genes in the height department. My daughter just turned 3. I hadn’t really thought about it until today my husband mentioned our daughter’s dress seemed short. I know that as you said in a podcast you’re just a person on the internet that has opinions on things…but I usually like your opinions & would appreciate your thoughts on the matter. Thanks.”

So, of course, I have thoughts and we have family policies related to both issues. But as I started to respond, what kept coming to mind was how crazy and so very sad it is that this is where we’ve come to as a society. That as good, concerned parents, we have THIS kind of stuff to worry about when our kids are two and three and four.

Concerns like this (and we all have them) are, empirically speaking, complete nonsense.
Modesty is a concept tied to sexuality. Since little kids are not sexual, they also shouldn’t have to be modest. Look at old movies from the forties and fifties, little girls are wearing dresses that barely cover their frilly unders . . . at a nativity play!
The kids and I recently read a book called Caddie Woodlawn, set in 1864, in which eleven-year-old Caddie and her two-years-older and younger brothers have to cross a river, so they all take their clothes off, bundle them up on their heads, and wade across. No biggie.

But, because of pornography and the hyper-sexualization of the society we live in, we grownups worry that everything is sexual. Even little kids. And even if WE know they aren’t, we run the risk of scandalizing our friends and neighbors who think that worrying about modesty with four-year-olds is protecting them, when really it’s just burdening them with stuff that totally doesn’t apply.

From what I can tell based on my mom’s collection of vintage patterns, people used to understand that little girls could run around in little dresses, and young ladies should dress like, well, young ladies.

And it’s not just a twentieth-century thing! Check out this excellent and informative Victorian age-appropriate skirt-length chart from Harper’s Bazaar found by Claire in the comments . . .

So, fashions change, but clearly, skirts have traditionally gone from short to long as girls become women.

These days, however, there are plenty of sweet knee-length and tea-length dresses for little girls, but heaven help you if you’re trying to find something that will reach longer than mid-thigh for your twelve-year-old who is already too tall for anything in the girls’ section. #askmehowiknow

It’s just all backward!

We should be emphasizing modesty and beauty and decorum with our tweens and teens and thinking about it pretty much not at all with our little kids.

So there’s the conundrum.

Philosophically, I hate the very idea of addressing this with my little kids. But, practically, this is the world we live in, for better and worse. So, we do address the concept of modesty with kids earlier than I think we should probably have to.

I’ve got a blog post on that:

Kids and Modesty or, How I Got My Kids to Quit Getting Naked in the Yard

but here’s the short version:

If you’re in diapers, there are no rules. Nakey anywhere anytime. Once kids are in undies, we start having rules about changing in private areas of the house, rather than public ones. The same rules apply to both boys and girls. We focus on dressing appropriately for the occasion. The girls wear bloomers and camisoles in case they want to turn somersaults or forget to sit like a lady.

I think having some idea of the concept of modesty, but not a huge focus on it in the early years, creates a framework that we can build on later when modesty
really is important.

As for brothers and sisters, I actually think getting to be familiar with the human body in a non-sexual, no-big-deal way is a blessing for kids in a family of boys and girls. My big kids all change the babies’ diapers and help little siblings dress, and so they all just naturally know how boys and girls are different. I never realized what a benefit it was until a friend with only daughters mentioned how crazy-curious her girls were.  They had heard that boys were different somehow but with no brothers around, they had never been able to see exactly HOW they were different!

Practically, after about age seven or so (the traditional “age of reason” in the Church) we don’t have them bathe or change with siblings of the opposite sex who are older than they are. But a four-year-old boy in our house can bathe with his sisters. And I’m okay with occasional naked river crossings, but only if the bridge is out. 😉 We have guidelines for bathing and changing, but not sleeping. My kids do sometimes sleep in the same room, or even in the same bed as a brother or sister . . . that doesn’t seem weird to us.

I’m just following in the footsteps of my mothering hero, The Country Bunny.

So, that’s how we do it.

Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, nor am I an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. (You’re thinking of this guy.)

If you read anything on this blog that is contrary to Church teaching, please consider it my error (and let me know!). I’m not a doctor or an expert on anything in particular. I’m just one person with a lot of experience parenting little kids and a desire to share my joy in marriage, mothering, and my faith.

If you’ve got a question, please send it along to Please let me
know if you prefer that I change your name if I use your question on the blog.


p.s. I am WAY behind on my mailbag. Like, a month behind. Maybe two. Between keeping up the blog, writing for Blessed is She (about the devil), the fixing up of the house we bought, and the
general care, feeding, and education of my children . . . I am fresh out of time to respond to emails. But if you wrote to me to ask a question, please know that I got it. I read it. I composed an answer to you in my head. But I haven’t typed it up yet. It is my sincere intention to do so sometime in the near future.


  1. Liz

    Yes! Thank you for this. I totally agree with the fact that we shouldn't see kids as sexual. They aren't. My boys are very little so my approach is without any experience but I just want their bodies to be bodies. Nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of.

  2. Alicia @ Sweeping Up Joy

    Hmmmm. Those patterns do offer insight into how modesty was handled in the past… It's like the little girls were dressed completely for function (long dresses would get dirty or inhibit playing). Our oldest is 7, so we haven't really addressed it any further than "sit at church so no one sees your underpants." Thanks for the thoughts!

  3. Julia Becker

    I'm curious. With having older boys, does it make breast feeding different around the house? When the kids were younger, no big deal to just open your bra and feed…but now that they're older, do you always cover up when they're around?

    • Kendra

      My parents are around a lot, so even when all the kids were little, I've mostly nursed the same way at home as I do out in public, which is: I make an attempt to be polite and cover up a bit, but I'm not a maniac about it.

      I have used nursing covers in the past, but what works for me now is wearing a nursing camisole under my shirt, and either pulling the shirt up to cover the top of my breast, or, if it's a button down, wearing a scarf to cover the top of the breast.

      That has been easy and convenient for me and is enough to keep from making people around me uncomfortable.

      And I am really glad that my kids are used to breastfeeding and know that that's what breasts are for. If the baby needs to eat, so be it, and if I'm not prepared, I'm fine with asking my son to go grab a scarf for me and expecting that he would avert his eyes in a gentlemanly way until I'm set.

      It seems to work. 🙂

  4. Ally The Speckled Goat

    Where do you find the bloomers? (And I'm looking for a pair to go under my jersey skirts… generally it's not an issue, but I live in Iowa, and oh, the WIND!)

    • Kendra

      We have shopped for them at an awesome girls' clothing shop in Memphis called Chocolate Soup, but there are tons of them on Etsy if you want the ruffly kind. For less ruffles, we have bike shorts from Amazon.

    • Lizzie

      I cut down the previous season's leggings much of the time. Also, short shorts are in, so I grab a couple of comfy pairs of those if we don't have enough cut offs.
      I've found slip shorts for me at all sorts of places, Walmart, target, etc.

    • Claire Rebecca

      I got these awesome "pettipants" (adult sizes) off of Under Moments on Amazon to wear to Disney World under skirts (I find shorts/pants to be very uncomfortable) – super comfy and very useful for rides! [that comment may have just posted several times because blogger commenting hasn't been working for me]

  5. Catie

    I hear you with being lucky to have a mix of boys and girls. I have only boys and my oldest (almost 10) seems absolutely clueless about boys and girls having different parts. When I babysit my friend's girls, I always change diapers in the living room for the whole world to see. So far, no one seems to care much. I fear it is going to have to be brought up when we learn biology in middle school/junior high.

  6. Amanda

    I have been thinking too about how applying the idea of modesty mostly to dress is leaving out so much that is important about it. Modesty is really about not drawing attention to yourself and putting others first and modesty in dress is so culturally specific anyway. I worry about my kids and I am attempting to teach some semblance of our culture's modesty in dress, what it can be frustrating to only hear talk about girls in particular covering up when what we really should be striving for is a godly attitude in conversation, dress, not objectifying or using others, etc.

  7. Anonymous

    I don't understand why you think her male teacher needs to be protected from a 5 year old. She is just a little child and if you think an adult man can be harmed by the site if her in shorts then you need to get another teacher .

  8. Amy

    I agree with you up to a point. The littlest diapered kids I'm not worried about modesty, like you. However, I think those little girl dresses (in the movie picture and the sewing patterns) are definitely too short. I don't care if it was the style of a certain past time. There were other more modest dresses in other past times (I'm thinking Little House on the Prairie, and during the time Our Blessed Mother lived.) My rule is below the knee. My girls are 14, 12, 10 and 4. One reason I think shorter dresses are a poor choice for girls is that the girls get used to not being dressed modestly, and it's harder for them to see the importance of a longer length as they get older…especially when society is embracing that shorter style. Sadly, others do view our little girls as sexual beings, and it is best for everyone if they are modestly dressed. Our Catholic school skirts had to touch the floor when we kneeled. There was a reason, and it was a good one, in my opinion, even if the girl is in the 4-10 age range.

    • Robin Fitzgerald

      I totally agree, Amy.
      We all have a conscious which tells us right from wrong. We also have an ingrained ( for good reason! ) sense of shame at nakedness in front of others.
      When we allow a child to run *free*, we're teaching them to ignore that little voice that says "This doesn't feel right… ". We're teaching them, even encouraging them, to override their conscious. When that happens enough, we stop listening to our conscious period. Things that should shock us, don't. Things that feel wrong, they start to feel ok, even right.
      God gives us our conscious for a reason. He also gives us The Church, which has provided us with very clear guidelines on dressing and behaving modestly. None of which are being addressed in this article. 🙁

    • Kendra

      Hmmm, Robin, I think you've misunderstood my position. Did you read both of my posts on the subject? I think the older post that I link to above will clear things up for you.

    • Sarah

      Covering little girls in long skirts is no guarantee against them being viewed as sexual objects. Unfortunately, the reverse is often true. The obvious, glaring example is the Duggers – ankle length skirts didn't keep their daughters safe from incest. If someone sees children as sexual objects, we call them a pervert for a reason.

    • *the ten of us*

      The Church has no clear guidelines on modesty because modesty is subjective. That's why women in America wear tops and some women in Africa don't, yet both can be considered modest.

      Also, little diapered children (and all children under the age of reason) don't really have a voice of conscience yet. We are expected to help them form their consciences, but it doesn't just appear out of the blue. I can guarantee you my four year old isn't thinking "This doesn't seem right!" when he runs around the house naked before bath time.

  9. Anonymous

    Yeah, I'm confused as well. What exactly does he need to be protected from?

  10. Claire Rebecca

    On the Wikipedia page for Victorian fashion under the "Victorian prudishness" heading there's an adorable little chart of how long girls' skirts were depending on age from a magazine. While they aren't as short as the video (was it winter in the movie? I would be so cold!) its a rather adorable picture of how skirts got longer as girls got older/taller. I remember Marilla sighing to Mrs. Rachel Lynde that soon Anne would be wearing long skirts and putting her hair up (it was quite the grown up thing to have one's hair up – even the girls who were old enough to be studying for their teacher's licenses at Queen's didn't always wear it up) in one of the Anne of Green Gables books – maybe Anne of Avonlea?

    • Kendra

      Oh my goodness, I love that chart! I just edited the post to add it!

    • Elizabeth

      Yes! I love how it was a big deal — a sign of maturity — that girls got to wear longer skirts and do things like put their hair up. I can see that as actually a positive to waiting on the long dresses and skirts. If parents always dress their little girls in long dresses and skirts, then the older girls may see that as too "little kid". Often, tweens and teens want to seem mature. The culture tells them that mature = skimpy clothing. And we may actually make things worse by dressing little kids in long dresses and shortening them as they get older, because that implies that maturity = shorter skirts. We need to find a new way to show that maturity = lovely, modest clothing, which are set apart from little-girl clothing.

    • Kendra

      That's such a good point about helping older girls to see longer skirts as more mature, and something to want.

  11. Kate

    If a man is having trouble with impure thoughts about a 4 year old, how your kid is dressed is not your biggest problem. He is a pedophile and should not be around child. Period. Thanks for a reasonable and well balanced article it is refreshing to hear common sense 🙂

  12. katiefromtheblock

    Great post! I totally agree that we think about modesty the wrong way. I'm Mormon but was raised minimal protestant, learning about modesty has definitely been a process for me. When I was in Utah for a wedding I saw little girls wearing bike shorts over tights under dresses! That seemed like overkill to me.
    There are these things called skirt slip extenders you could look into for your daughter. Some are sold on etsy. They're slips with fun ruffles or lace or something on the bottom that you can wear under shorter dresses to extend them. I'd also try Mormon-focused brands like Shabby Apple, Roolee, or Downeast Basics for longer lengths for young women. We love modest dress too! Another recommendation would be maxi dresses from target and have her wear a shirt or tank under and/or a sweater over. They're dresses are cute, long, easily hemmed and cheap!

  13. Robin Fitzgerald

    I see your patterns are primarily from the 1950's. As another woman pointed out, up until the 1920's, longer dresses were preferred for girls (of all ages) and sometimes even boys.
    So what happened to change that? Women's Lib. That's what happened. The correlation between women wearing less and demanding more is difficult to deny….
    When we see these patterns, above, we should consider their *roots*. You shall know a tree by its fruits. The fruits of Women's Lib were ripe for the pickin' in the mid 60's and 70's, weren't they? Enter the Sexual Revolution.
    I can't help but wonder if that generation of little girls, running around with their underwear showing and swimming naked (very common practices back then) had longer lasting effects than anyone imagined… After all, it was that generation (born in the 40's and 50's) that took part in the Sexual Revolution.
    Also, what does Church Teaching say in regards to modesty? Does it say that at a certain age only, like at The Age of Reason, modesty should be put into practice? I was under the impression that it was from the get-go…. There are very definite guidelines, and it's at risk to our own souls if we choose to disregard them. Just a thought.

  14. silicasandra

    As far as skirt length in the 1800s and such…yes, longer than in the 1930s and 40s. But as we see in Little House, Anne of Green Gables, etc. it was a very big deal when a girl got to wear floor-length skirts (and wear her hair up.) So skirts were longer overall, yes, but they were still shorter for little girls than grown women.

  15. Ashley B Pedigo

    Yes! I've been thinking this for years (less articulately) because as a teenager shopping for clothes was next to impossible. Now as a mom, I am dreading when my kids get older and our options for clothes become less and less modest. Maybe fashion will change then, and clothes will start getting longer soon. One can only hope!

  16. Lacey

    I've never sent you a question before, but I was literally JUST considering emailing you about the boy/girl sibling bathing/changing age thing (I have one sister and therefore no frame of reference). It must be hive mind. And thanks for your thoughts!

  17. Audie

    I read a book a few years ago called "The Lost Art of Dress" which talked about how in the past little kids wore short skirts so that they could play. It was interesting that teenagers really wanted to wear the long, draped dresses that women were allowed to wear. When mini skirts hit the scene in the 60's the "dress doctors" were appalled mostly because they thought it made the women look like toddlers!

  18. Valéria Maciel Costa

    Thank you! É muito bom poder ler sobre ser mãe, sobre ser educadora, e com a Graça de Deus poder ir sonhando com isso para minha vida. obrigada por compartilhar de sua experiência conosco! Deus os abençoe!


  1. The Country Bunny and Seasons of Mothering - Catholic All Year - […] Don’t We Have This Modesty Thing Backwards? […]

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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