Strict dress codes send our kids a message: We care about your appearance, but we don't believe in you
We’ve got it backwards.
Somewhere along the line, some of us decided to trade personal responsibility and freedom of expression for “the devil made me do it”-style passing the buck. We decided that accountability wasn’t important – that it’s better to judge the proverbial book by its cover than to bother reading a single word inside.
Here’s what got me going today: A school district in Clovis, California, right next to my hometown, tried to keep a student from enrolling in classes because he wears his hair in a short ponytail. He wasn’t just any student, but an honors student with a 5.0 grade-point average who said he wanted to honor his cultural heritage.
But his motivation shouldn’t matter. Cultural. Religious. Artistic. I couldn’t care less about his motivation it, as long as he’s not a terrorist or gang banger. What I do care about is that the school is abdicating its core mission: Teaching young people how to forge an adult identity – something they’ll never learn if they don’t have a chance to express themselves.
It’s easy to make excuses, to say that a student isn’t learning because he or she is “distracted” by a peer’s appearance. Excuse me for saying so, but that’s an insult. Kids are smart enough to know they can study just fine, thank you, when someone’s wearing a colorful shirt, a beard, a pair of earrings or long hair. And they’re disciplined enough to do it, too – especially when adults expect it of them.
But we don’t. Instead, we expect them to fail just because someone else has a few hairs “out of place” (by our standards) or has the audacity to wear a T-shirt that might just prompt someone to think outside the tight constraints of the administration’s imaginary box. “You’ll be too distracted,” we tell them, “to be able to learn.”
Guess what: If kids can’t learn because they're 'distracted' by some guy’s wearing facial hair, they won’t be able to function in a professional world that places a premium on broad skill sets and the ability to adapt. Distracting? You bet. They’d be better off getting used to that kind of distraction and, wouldn’t you know it, they can handle it – better than many of us imagine.
It’s only when we stop having confidence in our youth that they dumb themselves down and stop listening to us. Why should they listen to people who expect them to fail in the face of some perceived external obstacle – even something so minor as the way a person dresses.
Instead of encouraging them to focus on their goals and take pride in their achievements, here’s what we’re teaching them: to stop trying and scapegoat others for their failures. Do we really want to be complicit in this? Do we want to be the ones who teach them that a book’s cover is all that matters? That style is more important than substance?
If we tell them that a classmate’s clothing can “make” them fail academically, how different is that than telling them a woman’s clothing can “make” a man rape her?
The fallacy here is that we’re faced with an either-or situation, that we must either raise a bunch of irresponsible hippies who never contribute anything to society or a generation of imperial storm troopers in identical white armor.
That’s a false choice based on a lack of confidence in our kids – based, for some of us, on the assumption that their creativity is a threat to everything we’ve achieved. We accuse them of being undisciplined, of having no taste in music, of wasting their lives. For all our talk about making the world a better place for our children, we sometimes fail to realize that the best way – ultimately, perhaps, the only way – to do that is to empower them to make it a better place for themselves ... and we do the exact opposite.
We teach them to scapegoat others, which is the antithesis of empowerment.
But it's easy because what we all too often do ourselves.
We stop living our own lives, and two things happen: We make others (minorities and immigrants; those “others” who don’t look like us, practice our religion or speak our language) into fall guys for our failures. Meanwhile, we live vicariously through the clones we place on cardboard pedestals – celebrities, athletes and politicians, but most of all, our kids. Objects all of our own wish fulfillment.
Our kids, of course, aren’t clones or “mini-mes,” and we’re no better than those obnoxious parents who shout obscenities at Little League games. We teach them to play the game our way, then express disappointment when they ultimately decide to be writers or artists instead. In the meantime, we occupy ourselves by screaming at the poor scapegoated umpire to “go find a pair of glasses!” when that last strikeout’s our fault for forcing our kids into a mold that never fit them.
I’m thankful my parents never did that. They encouraged me to play basketball in junior high, but they never objected when I decided not to pursue it further.
And my high school never told me I couldn’t attend classes because I grew a full beard during my senior year (when it looked very much the same as it does in the photo accompanying this article, taken at my college commencement ceremony). No one ever complained that it was a distraction, and as for me, I blasted through my final semester with straight A’s.
If I’d been in Clovis, I might have been barred from enrolling in class.
We have two choices. We can empower our children to surpass our achievements, or we can enslave them to our ultimate obsolescence.
My own hope is that we equip our kids to go in search of lands yet undiscovered on roads less – or not yet – traveled.
On the trek that is our shared human journey, that will make all the difference.