Jonnie from Pasadena writes:

Dear sisters:

I have one daughter in college. She is great and responsible and I love her. She's home for the summer and my problem is that she doesn't dress modestly anymore. It's something she pushed me on growing up all the time. Now I feel it's a real negative influence on her younger sisters and brothers. Is this something I should just let go or should I keep the standard?

Thanks for all you do.

Kathy says:

Dear Jonnie,

Guiding a grown child is a very different job from parenting younger kids.

As if that weren't tricky enough, the topic of “appropriate” attire is almost guaranteed to trigger explosive emotions.

It's very difficult not to feel personally attacked, insulted and furious when we are confronted with concerns about our appearance.

Back in my former life as a practice consultant, this issue reared its head more than once, and was never resolved without tears and tantrums; and we were discussing the matter with adults!

We improved with practice. We learned that the concern has to be addressed as briefly and calmly as possible. No long preambles. No tap dancing around the topic. No embarrassment or discomfort. “Jamie, would you mind changing into a skirt that comes down to your knees? We'll pay you for your travel time, of course. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

Enough said.

When it's your own daughter, it won't be that easy, of course, but I hope you can find a way to pull all the negative implications out of the discussion. She's not “immodest.” She's just wearing a sleeveless shirt. “We'd like you to wear shirts with sleeves while you're home, because that's the standard for the younger girls. Do you need a few more? Let's run out and find a couple of cute ones.”

(Substitute the specifics. Shorts that come to her knees, shirts that cover her torso, clothing that is maybe just a little less tight, while she's home with the younger kids.)

I hope the discussion can be friendly and constructive on both sides; but even if it escalates into a conflict, conflict can be productive if you follow the rules of engagement. Don't tell her she looks seductive or ill-bred or that she is flaunting her sexuality or flouting the standards. Stick to the facts. Shirts with sleeves are the standard in your home. “Nobody is judging anybody; we just like the feeling of following the prophet. We'd like you to join us so we will not feel divided.”

It might be wise to acknowledge that your daughter is an adult now, and you are not trying to exercise parental authority on this issue. You will, however, enforce the standard with the younger ones, because that's part of your responsibility. It would be appreciated if, as a courtesy, your older daughter would also follow the guidelines.

My guess is that you'll have a rough time finding clothing that you approve of that she likes well enough to wear; but I hope the search can become a fun, bonding experience for the two of you. I hope, when she returns to school in the fall, she will have grown accustomed to wearing more comfortable, conservative styles, and will enjoy wearing the things you and she picked out together, if only for sentimental reasons.

I suspect she might privately come to accept the fact that she is likely to be taken more seriously if she dresses according to a more classic standard, as long as you keep the discussion positive.

At this stage in your daughter's life, the only real influence you have is the strength of your relationship with her, and her judgment of how well your values have served you. If she loves and admires you, she is likely to accept your values over those of her peers. This is a pivotal time to emphasize the importance of the relationship.

One last thought: Think this through very carefully before you speak. Why, exactly, does it matter whether an unendowed woman wears scanty clothing? It might take some pondering to formulate an answer that is completely innocent of judgment or negative messages about her body or her motives. Please let us know what you decide to say, and how it works!

I'm very sure there are hundreds of moms out there trying to manage exactly the same issue.

Alison says:

Kathy has so much wisdom in her respond. I really have nothing to add. I would like to pose a question that occurred to me as I read her response, though. How far should mom go to enforce the standard if the daughter isn't willing to comply with the request?

Tracy says:

Hi Jonnie,

We're all so grateful for our agency, but every now and then it would be nice to take someone else's away, wouldn't it?

Since we're talking about a girl in college, you can't really take her clothes away or tell her what to wear. On the other hand, if she's living at home for the summer I don't think it's unreasonable at all to remind her of what is and is not allowed in your home. Just like you probably wouldn't allow her to come home and use foul language, light up a cigarette, or have a live-in boyfriend spend the night with her in your home, you also don't need to allow her dress inappropriately in front of her younger brothers and sisters.

I think this would be a good time for a one on one, adult to “adult” conversation. My advice would be to affirm her status as an adult, that you recognize that when she's out on her own at college she may choose to live differently than she did at home, but while she's at home, you expect her to live by family standards, especially since she has younger siblings at home who may be influenced by her example.

Explain that this is a matter of mutual respect. You respect her right as an “adult” to dress as she'd like when she's away from home and on her own. But she needs to respect the family standards and the rules of your home when she's there.

If she has the nerve to argue with you and throw a little tantrum about being an adult and grown-up enough to make her own decisions about what to wear even when she is at your home, I'd gently remind her that evidently, she isn't as “grown-up” as she thinks she is, since she's having to live with “mommy and daddy” during the summer.