The Right Age

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

June 11, 2010 5 min read

When it comes to picking clothes for school, your teenage daughter wants to look "hot," her twin brother insists on really baggy jeans, and their preteen little sister wants to dress like a pop star.

What's a parent to do?

Set the ground rules, and don't back off, the experts say.

"It's important to begin with some rules and make sure that your child/teen knows them and that you are consistent about them. If you don't have bottom line rules (e.g., no skirts/shorts above fingertip length, no bra straps or underwear sticking out, no bellybuttons showing), your child won't have anything to start with and you won't have a position from which to negotiate initially," says psychologist, consultant and author Dr. Susan Bartell.

But that doesn't mean your child's clothes have to be a carbon copy of what you wear, she adds. "Your child's clothing choices do not and should not reflect your taste, but they should reflect the level of modesty that is socially and developmentally appropriate. This needs to be negotiated properly so your child feels that you understand her needs and you feel comfortable with what she is wearing," she says. "It's normal for your child to have different taste than you. It's generational and part of the separation process. When you inflict your taste on your child, it will make for many arguments."

Whether you ante up or your child pays for all or part of his/her back-to-school wardrobe, retain the right of first refusal, Bartell says. And if he/she chooses something that isn't flattering, say so, but do it one-on-one when your child is not tired and when friends and siblings aren't around. "It's tough. You need to be very, very sensitive."

Taking a look at the "norm" in your area can help you decide about such things as when to allow makeup, but it should not dictate your ultimate decision, Bartell says. But if your child struggles socially, "it should be strongly considered. A child who already has a hard time making friends needs to be able to fit in in superficial ways. That's just reality!"

Communicating with your child about clothing and makeup choices can start as early as grade school, experts say, as a way to counter the barrage of images of provocatively dressed young entertainers they see on television and in movies and magazines.

Younger children have a hard time distinguishing the difference between dress-up and real world, so if your young daughter watches as you apply makeup, it may be the ideal time to explain "why shimmery eyes, lacquered lips and brightly colored cheeks might look great on her dolls but aren't what people wear on a daily basis," says Sarah McIlroy, CEO and co-founder of FashionPlaytes, an online design studio that enables girls ages 5 to 12 to design and produce their own clothing lines. "She needs to know there's a distinction between Barbie-land and the real world."

McIlroy started her company to provide the kind of fashion confidence she gained as a child in working with her mother, a skilled sewer who was able to transform her daughter's sketches for school and party clothes into real garments. "I'd like to offer girls the chance to create something unique and build their confidence and self-esteem in the process, says McIlroy, now the mother of two. "At the essence of our business is collaboration between parents and daughters throughout the design process."

Even if you haven't had the chance to open that line of communication until you and your child are already at odds over clothing and/or makeup choices, don't be afraid to speak up. "If an outfit is inappropriate because of the child's age or because of the setting in which he or she will be wearing it, explain the reason for your objection and hold your ground," says attorney and psychologist Dr. Robert Goldman, a specialist in children's issues. "If your objection is based purely on what you like and don't like, if it is purely a matter of taste, you could let your child know that though this wouldn't be something you would choose for him or her, the choice is his or hers."

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