I think it’s easy to fall into one of two errors when dealing with kids and modesty. One is the idea that the human body is bad and that we must ensure that our children hide their ‘naughty bits’, the other is a reaction too far in the other direction: that we mustn’t give our kids ‘hang ups’ about their bodies by not allowing them to be free and natural since after all, they are just kids.
As with all virtues, I have found that the middle ground is the right place to be.
But soon, I had kids that were five and six and still weren’t magically developing an innate sense of decorum that would tell them that it would perhaps not be appropriate to come striding out of one’s bedroom naked as a jaybird because one cannot get the top button of his pajamas undone . . . when we have company over for dinner.
And I realized that, like making eye contact with people when you are talking to them and not shoving the board off of the table when your mother (despite her best efforts to cheat to lose) beats you at Candyland, modesty must be taught and learned and enforced in order for it to exist in my children. It doesn’t come any more naturally to them than good manners or good sportsmanship.
I also gained a better understanding of the Catholic Church’s teachings about the human person, which helped me to understand that what I needed to teach my children was not shame about their bodies, but rather a proper respect for themselves and other people. Modesty is an intregal part of that.
So now, I have a twofold approach to teaching modesty.
1. Modesty is good manners.
Modesty is partially dependent on our culture. What would be appropriate dress that would make others feel comfortable being around me obviously could vary depending on the time period and geographical location in which I might live. But the main point I try to make to my children is that we must not attempt to draw attention to ourselves based on our clothing choices.
We shouldn’t attempt to draw attention to ourselves by wearing not enough clothes, of course. But nor should we draw attention to ourselves by wearing clothing that is dirty, or mismatched, or has inappropriate text, or is not appropriate for the event.
A young lady wearing a ball gown to the public pool may be more covered up than all the other women there, but she would certainly be making a spectacle of herself with her clothing. If that’s the reason she’s dressed like that, then it’s immodest.
We wear clothes to protect our bodies from the elements, and to allow other people to feel comfortable being in our company. My kids need to learn to make clothing choices with that in mind.
2. Modesty is befitting my status as a child of God.
The other side of the coin is not dependent on culture. I also must be modest because I am a child of God. That means that even if every other girl at the pool is wearing a string bikini, my girls and I are going to have our tummies covered. Now perhaps it will be noticeable that my girls are the only ones in the group without a bikini (fortunately this has never been the case for us!), but that wouldn’t change the minimum standard of modesty that we owe not to society, but to our Creator.
I love that idea that God is the King, so all of us are adopted princes and princesses. I can just hear Merida’s mother in my head reminding me, “A princess would NEVER . . . ” wear yoga pants to Mass, nurse in an in-your-face manner, wear an old stained sweater with holes in it, show that much leg, etc, etc.
I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to emphasize to children the idea that our bodies are for our future spouses. While I think that that is partially true, I think that it is MORE true that our bodies are for God whether He intends us to have a spouse or not. And I think that it’s more appropriate to understand that spouses become one rather than that they take ownership of one another’s bodies. So I think it’s more useful to emphasize God’s claim on our bodies rather than a spouse’s.
So that’s WHY. But what about HOW?
HOW is going to be more dependent on where you live and your family culture and temperament (see point 1) but I can tell you what we do. And you can figure it out for yourself from there.
Babies under two have a get out of clothes free card around here. I do love naked babies. And anyone who has problems with seeing a nakey baby, just has problems. I can’t worry about that.
But sometime between two and three The Rules kick in around the Tierney house, and modesty is part of that. We expect kids to be clothed in public areas of the house. They must change in bedrooms or bathrooms. Girls change in the girls’ room, boys change in the boys’ room (even though that’s not necessarily where they end up sleeping). They must wear bathing suits for water play even in our own backyard (which is not visible from the street) just because I want them to understand that nudity is for private spaces only, not public spaces. And again, not because their bodies are naughty, but because the culture we live in requires clothing and because a Prince/Princess would never run around the yard naked.
We also have very similar rules for boys and girls in regards to modesty. Modesty is NOT just for girls. My boys can sleep without a shirt on if they’d like, but they may not come to breakfast without one. Shirts are required for boys and girls in public areas of the house.
My boys also wear shirts when swimming, mostly to keep their cheap Irish skin out of the sun, but also because I am personally more comfortable interacting with boys and men who have shirts on, even near a body of water. So that’s how I’m bringing up my kids.
Beyond that, boys are mostly easy. Their wardrobe choices are pretty much: short sleeve shirt, long sleeve shirt, shorts, pants. But I do require that they learn to match clothing (all my boys have gone through a green goes with green, red goes with red stage that they need to be coached out of), learn to dress appropriately for the event, and not wear costumes out of the house (unless, of course, costumes are appropriate for the event).
For Mass they always wear shirts with collars and dress pants and belts and dress shoes. It’s not any harder to put them in those in the morning than it is to put them in shorts and a t-shirt. Then if we have other plans later . . . they change.
For us girls, I try to emphasize choosing clothes that look nice on us and are appropriate for our age and the event. Fortunately my nine year old has always preferred dresses anyway, which I think are easy and flattering for little girls. And she’s in charge of dressing the three year old, so they both mostly wear dresses.
They do own shorts and jeans and t-shirts, because sometimes those things are more appropriate for the event. Of course, as my daughter gets older it gets harder to find appropriate and flattering and cute clothes. But they are out there. It takes some work to find them, but I make it a priority. I have found that I really do need to take her shopping now so she can try things on, which is a departure for me. I really prefer to buy things online and avoid trips to the mall. But we just went to Old Navy and got her a whole summer wardrobe (including a matching dress for her sister that Betty really wanted to spend some of her budget on!). I’ve also had good luck with Gymboree, although they are more expensive (we have generous grandmothers).
For everyday dressing, the girls and I avoid strapless and even spaghetti straps usually. We wear camisoles to avoid neckline issues, and we keep dresses, skirts, and shorts pretty close to the knee.
|Shirt and sweater: Old Navy
|Necklace: a street vendor in Nashville
Bump: 15 weeks
For Mass I keep my shoulders and knees mostly covered. The girls keep their shoulders covered as well, but I don’t mind if their dresses are above the knee, within reason.
We dress modestly, but I make a point of not dressing myself or my kids like we don’t live in this country or time period. I’m unlikely to attract people to my faith and lifestyle if we’re wearing clothes that set us too far apart from the people we meet. There is a happy medium.
Thanks to the ladies at Fine Linen and Purple for hosting What I Wore Sunday, to Grace for hosting Sunday Best, and to Rosie for asking me about kids and modesty!
This is a GREAT post! Well said!
Hmmm, we're definitely in the beginning stages of teaching a little bodily 'dignity' to our 2.5 year old. Both he and the 13 month old are born nudists, so there is definitely some social conditioning we're fighting. I like the idea of not emphasizing future spouses, etc., especially with really little ones. It always strikes me as weird and slightly repressive to teach them they're 'hands off' until Mr./Mrs. Right comes along.
Do you think nursing without a cover is immodest? I used to feel super exposed with my first little one, but by the end of nursing #2 we were pretty much whenever, wherever, and he was VERY anti-nursing cover. I figured the thrashing and flailing limbs attracted more attention than any bit of skin I might be showing (which I found to be minimal with a cami/top combo.
I've been all over the map on the nursing cover thing. But I've ended up believing that although nursing is NOT a sexual thing, it IS still a private thing. It makes many people uncomfortable to see someone nursing. It just does. It is within my power to give my baby nutrition convienently without making people feel uncomfortable, so I think that's what I should do.
Hmm…interesting. I generally nurse without a cover (the exception being if I'm wearing a dress or shirt that makes discreet nursing w/o a cover impossible). In some cases I tend to think a nursing cover draws more attention to you..instead of simply and quickly lifting a shirt up to nurse.
As far as other modesty goes, I generally don't let my kids run around naked at any age…more for practical reasons than modesty…I don't want accidents all over the place for kids not potty-trained, and because I don't want to deal with them fighting getting dressed when I need them dressed..so they basically just stay dressed all the time. It just seems easier, so that's what we do.
Thanks for this, Kendra! I've been all over the board when it comes to covers, too – these days the babies tend to rip them off and expose me MORE, so I lift up or use a scarf for extra coverage. But that's completely another debate!
We definitely need to work on less naked time around the house – it's the bathroom to bedroom that's really the worst, because they just go streaking out of the bathroom for all to see! My mom made them bathrobes, maybe we'll start a bathrobe policy during these times. Thankfully they no longer go naked in our sunroom, where all the neighbors are free to enjoy an anatomy lesson…
This is great, thank you – I think your points are great for adults, too, esp. with the modesty debates floating around FB these days.
I really like your outfit. I need some fun skirts like that! It's difficult to find nice modest clothes for girls, especially once they're in the big girl department. We remedy the sleeveless dress and top problem by pairing those pieces with cute little sweaters to cover up the shoulders. I'm a firm believer that you need to teach your children from a young age to dress modestly if you expect it to take. My elven and a half year old is always pointing out her friends who barely wear enough to cover their bodies. She doesn't get why they want to dress like that. I just keep reminding her that those girls are asking for the wrong sort of attention without even realizing it.
Such an amazing post! I'm with you…I love naked babies. Ryan runs around naked all the time. I do like your two and over cut off. Well, really, I like your whole viewpoint. Thank you for sharing!
Have you read Dressing with Dignity by Colleen Hammond? Though you are already in the modest is hottest groove, the book is a good read. We've used it with both our girls & young teens from a Guardians of purity group.
Love the skirt:-). Ip
Look at how teeny you are!! So cute!
This is my first time visiting your blog and I feel like I am reading about my own life in many ways! My husband and I are devout Catholics, have had 6 children in 9 years (and are open to more!), are returning to homeschooling after this current school year is open and believe in parenting with authority!
🙂 Congrats on your current pregnancy! I look forward to reading more!
Wow, your whole family looks so nice! What a great example of stylishness and unostentatious modesty. I love your skirt and your boys' shirts.
I really appreciate your advice on modesty. It's very hot where I live, so I tend to be too casual in Mass (shorts for the little boys and occasionally sleeveless dresses for me, with full shoulder coverage). I've been thinking about trying a little harder with this, but need to make some purchases to adjust our "nice" wardrobe.
I am with you on avoiding the mall. It's just full of nastiness, and a horrible reminder humanity's fallen, sinful state of existence.
I'm so glad I found your blog! I look forward to reading more in the future, as we prepare to start homeschooling our oldest.
This is my first time visiting your blog, and I do just love it. I think everything you've said here is really on point. I did wonder, however, whether you knew that Old Navy (owned by Gap Inc.) is a known financial supporter of Planned Parenthood as well a supporter of gay "marriage."
Of course, not all Catholics make shopping choices based on which companies do or do not donate to PP. Some people are happy with simply not donating to PP directly. I just thought I would mention it since you specifically talked about Old Navy in your post.
P.S. My name is Heather, but I don't have an account with any of the places in that drop-down menu. 😉
Thanks for your comment Heather. I actually have a half-done post on that very issue someplace in my drafts folder that I'll have to finish sometime. But I do appreciate you bringing it up, I didn't really intend to specifically endorse Old Navy, just to point out that even at the big cheap mall store there are modest clothes to be found if you're willing to look.
Awesome post! I'm with you on everything here.
"And I think that it's more appropriate to understand that spouses become one rather than that they take ownership of one another's bodies . . . I think it's more useful to emphasize God's claim on our bodies rather than a spouse's." This is really neat, I'm going to try to remember it for teaching my children.
I'm interested in how you see breastfeeding in terms of modesty?
Well good news, I wrote a whole post about it, and the comments are VERY interesting. You can see it here.
Thanks Kendra, I saw that after I posted a comment here. Clearly it was on your mind too.
What a perfect, sensible and well rounded post
I got here from the packing post so I know this comment is old… BUT… if you were to try and sneak another grandparent buying brand into the mix I would say go with Hanna Andersson. I got my mom hooked and she hits the free shipping and sales and clearance and the quality is awesome and the sizing is great too!
Thanks Joanne, I am looking for new brands to try since Betty is just about out of Gymboree sizes already.
"We dress modestly, but I make a point of not dressing myself or my kids like we don't live in this country or time period. I'm unlikely to attract people to my faith and lifestyle if we're wearing clothes that set us too far apart from the people we meet. There is a happy medium." I dress according to the modestly guidelines of Padre Pio and (most importantly) according to Mary-like standards,
http://www.catholicmodesty.com/MarylikeStandardsofModestyinDress.html. I feel very relevant to life in todays worlds and prefer bright, happy colors. I found your above comment to be slightly offensive, slightly because I chose not to be offended but I was hurt by it. In terms of the people we meet, Christ exhorts us to be in this world and not of it so I deliberately choose to ignore "fashion". I recently found your blog and have been devouring it from the beginning in quickly snatched doses and at nap time. Thank you for sharing of yourself and your writings. God bless you.
Thanks Ashley. I clicked over to the site you recommend, and I guess I don't understand how those guidelines could be said to be "Marylike." We don't really know for sure HOW Mary dressed, as there are no descriptions of her clothing in the bible or any of the gnostic gospels. At least not that I'm aware of. The traditional dress of Isrealite women at the time of the New Testament would certainly not have included knee-length skirts.
But, of course, the Holy Family fled to Egypt, which had quite different cultural standards for dress. Our Lady might well have dressed like her neighbors while in Egypt, we just don't know. If she did, her arms would have been bare.
The Basilica of the Assumption in Nazareth, Israel has mosaic depictions of the Virgin Mary donated by 43 different nations. In each, Mary is depicted in the traditional dress of that nation. She is beautiful in each. And has perfect dignity in each. And many don't follow the guidelines of that website. Notably Indonesia and Thailand. Don't you think the Thai one is so, so lovely though?
Those "Marylike standards of dress" were written by one priest in the 1960s. They seem completely arbitrary to me. And so rigid, and presented in such an unsympathetic way. He references one quote by one advisor to the pope who was answering one specific question for one specific culture and era. I really, really don't agree with his sweeping generalizations.
I think modesty can be found within our cultural norms and isn't as simple as "two fingers below the hollow of the neck" or as complex as a whole book of exactly what's okay and what's not okay.
Thank you for reading and God Bless you too.
Our Lady told Jacinta at Fatima: "Certain fashions will be introduced which will offend Our Divine Lord very much. Those who serve God ought not to follow these fashions. The Church has no fashions. Our Lord is always the same." The Church actually has a standard for what is acceptable. A few things include: no sleeveless blouses, a neckline that is within 2 fingers depth from the pit of the throat, no tight fitting clothes, no see-through fabrics and so on. I believe that it is better to teach virtue and instill a love for modesty and to learn to love ourselves enough to be confident in being able to be different than the rest. A child should not have a need to be like the "crowd." But rather they should be taught to seek their own identity. This is the whole problem "doing what is fashionable." Why not teach our children to be their own person. I made the mistake years ago of trying to fit in with the other women at church who dressed very poorly and wore baggy, droopy dresses. I went all over the map with clothes. Now I finally feel settled in wearing stylish, modest dresses and skirts that fit within the standards set by Our Catholic faith. It is possible to be stylish and modest at the same time if it is important to ones self.
Thank you for writing this! Love hearing your perspective.
This is wonderful. Thank you for bringing it out of the archives.
I am the same exact way with my children, when swimming I have my son wear a sun shirt with sunscreen built in to it and no showing of the stomach for my daughter. I do take the time to talk to them about modesty and what is appropriate to be naked and when not to be naked. So whenever I see any one of my children naked I will ask them to go get something and put it on then sit down on the table and grab one of my worksheets I made up and the work sheet is called “ what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate” it’s a really good worksheet talking about when it’s a good time to be naked and a bad time to be naked. Example: is it a good time to be naked around family and friends during a party? Then my children will circle yes or no and then explain in their own words why it’s appropriate or not appropriate to be naked around family or friends during a party, just one sentence. They pick out what they want to wear for the day and I will help them out I am trying to teach my kids to be good and responsible and respectful because they have both their parents guiding them down the right path to happiness