Second Thought: Wednesday, January 03, 2007
Grandma and the Tramp Stamp

One generation’s trash is another’s middle finger.


Being the father of a teenage daughter these days is fraught with all sorts of wonderment and melancholy and insanity. We have a nice time when we talk about movies and music and maybe some news issues, but it all goes downhill when she lights into me because I ask too many questions (like the contentious “What did you have for lunch?”).

Insanity pervades the happy den between the good and the bad times, mainly because I forget one of the basic tenets of parenting: Most teenage behavior makes no sense. And so I waste time in useless pursuits like wondering why text messaging on the cell phone is now the foundation of teenage civilization, complaining that rap music all sounds the same and has little artistic merit, and expressing my desire to ban the words “like” and “awesome” from the English language.

But I also fall prey to another lapse in judgment that parents of teenagers typically make: We forget what it was like at that age. The adolescent years are a time of benign protest, and teens seem to take great pleasure in getting a rise out of their parents and in the shock value of some of their antics. That’s why they listen to music we don’t like, hang out in packs like rabid animals, and dress in clothing that makes a father wince.

It’s this clothing issue that has been getting a lot of attention lately. Public schools across the country are proposing strict dress codes for high-schoolers — standard uniforms in some places — to stop the kids from wearing clothing that adults don’t like.

We all know the taboos here: Young girls showing cleavage and baring their midriffs to display pierced belly buttons, boys wearing their pants so low their ass crack hangs out like a plumber bending over. Big “Tall-T” white t-shirts that some adults think of as gang wear, and the emo boys in their girl pants, eyeliner, and hair that covers half of their face. Jeans that have rips in the knees and tight shirts with slutty messages.

Most of us over the age of 17 can agree on some basics: Our kids should not be dressed for school in ways that are obscene. Boys should not be showing their butts, thong underwear should be kept below the waist of whatever garment is worn on top, and camisole tops should be saved for bedtime. As far as I’m concerned, unless school districts want a serious and strict uniform policy — khaki pants and ties and oxford shirts, for instance — then they shouldn’t go much beyond those basic obscenity rules.

It’s not that I like it when my daughter wears her short jean skirt with the rips in the hem. But I also know the history here. When parents try to exert some social control over teenagers, kids go the other way. The truth is that there’s always some kind of trend that kids can adopt to shock their mainstream parents. In the 1920s it was jazz music and flappers, with their check-to-cheek, body-clutching moves on the dance floor, and their sleeveless dresses making armpit shaving a new grooming issue (I’m sure the parents loved that one). In the 1950s it was rock ’n’ roll, leather jackets, greased-back hair, and Elvis grinding his hips. Long hair, mini-skirts, and bell-bottoms in the sixties. In the late 1970s and early 1980s it was punk music, torn clothing, and spiky hair in DayGlo colors, succeeded by the messy Nirvana grunge of the 1990s.

So parents and school administrators might think twice before they ban tall t’s and ripped jeans. If the dress code rules get too strict after so many years without them, the kids will push back in the other direction — and maybe wear much worse after class.

There is one obvious solution, but it flies beyond parental reasoning. If you don’t want kids to dress a certain way, then start dressing that way yourself. Fathers can do yard work wearing droopy pants with their cheeks hanging out. Going to the mall with their daughters, moms can put on a ripped mini-skirt, hiking boots, and a t-shirt that says “Good Girls Are Bad Girls That Never Get Caught.” Emo Grandpa can do a combover across his face and wear husky-size girl pants. Grandma can get a small-of-the-back, tramp-stamp tattoo and eyebrow piercings. The crazy aunt can go goth.

Yeah, that’s not gonna happen. So instead, hold your nose, set some basic rules, and wait it out. In about a decade, your kids will have become just like you. They’ll rant about how teenagers are absolutely crazy, dressing in ways that show no respect for society. And you can sit there in your Sex Pistols t-shirt and laugh at ’em.

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