The next time you are tempted to chide your teen for his or her choice of outfit, remember a measured approach laced with humour will help to get your point across better.
Much to her parents’ chagrin, polytechnic student Tracy Goh favours cropped tops and form-fitting pants, just like how the cool kids in school dress. And because she is tall, many off-the-rack dresses end mid-thigh on her 1.72m frame, which is “not so bad”, says the 17-year-old girl.
But her mother, account manager Winnie Tan, disagrees.
“When we went shopping and she tried on those dresses, they were far too short on her, unless she wears tights underneath. I refused to buy the dresses,” says Tan, 51.
A pastel dress that fell a little above the knee, which Tracy spotted on a recent family trip to Bangkok, was given the go-ahead. The scalloped dress also had a longer hemline at the back than its front, further protecting the girl’s modesty. Tan, who bought the dress, says: “It was quite appropriate and we were happy with it.”
Tracy says: “My mum’s fashion sense is not bad, so I listen to her.”
Like educators at the Ryde Academy in the United Kingdom, who had banned skirts above the knee and last month took 250 British schoolgirls out of classes because their skirts were too short, many parents here are concerned about their teenagers’ dressing – be it tight jeans, tube tops or short hemlines.
The bugbears, especially, are shorts so skimpy that they reveal the butt cheeks as well as plunging necklines.
But strictly banning teenagers from donning these could be tricky, so family experts counsel a measured approach for parents, such as starting from neutral ground with a shopping trip.
Iris Lin, 33, who heads the youth division at Fei Yue Community Services in Singapore, says a shopping trip creates the space for parents and their teenagers to explore the boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not.
However, she cautions parents against saying too much about their teenager’s clothing picks during this time. “For teens in general, the last thing they want is to have parents comment on their fashion. It is a big turn-off,” she explains.
Point out attire you are uncomfortable with, but say it generally — to avoid putting your teen on the defensive — and do it with humour, she advises parents.
“For example, point to something and say, ‘Wow, that skirt is so short that anyone who wears it and bends down will expose everything’,” she suggests.
Administrative secretary Esther Teo, 41, has shopping dates with her children. She and her 14-year-old son, Dylan, who favours skinny jeans, bermudas and form-fitting shirts in monotone hues, chat about his choices and styling on these trips.
But she now faces the challenge of parenting her daughters aged 12 and seven, and monitoring the clothes they wear.
“For my son, I have no qualms in terms of dressing ... but girls are usually at a disadvantage because they may attract unwanted attention when they wear revealing clothes,” says Teo.
She strives for balance. When the elder girl Sarah, who loves Korean fashion, pointed out a pinafore skirt she liked, Teo was happy to buy it for her as its hemline fell slightly above the kneecap.
In fact, she ended up buying two versions of the same pinafore for her daughter. “It is not revealing and looks really good on her,” says Teo, who is firmly against tube tops and shorts that expose the butt cheeks.
Chee Choon Heong also has a no-butt-cheeks dressing policy for her children. She has been through the routine with three daughters aged 28, 24 and 19.
While she can live with the fact that they favour low-cut T-shirts, she insists they steer clear of teeny-weeny shorts that expose their butt cheeks.
“I don’t want them to dress like an Ah Lian,” explains the self-employed Chee, 52, using the local slang for girls who are crude and favour loud, gaudy dressing.
For corporate communications specialist Pauline Teo, who has a 13-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, certain wardrobe items may be OK in some contexts, but not others.
A spaghetti-strap top, she feels, is practical in Singapore’s tropical weather, but in a place such as a church, she might ask her daughter to wrap a shawl around her shoulders. She adds: “I am not sure how I would feel if she starts wearing short skirts ... maybe with safety shorts, it should be fine.”
Her way – offering a compromise rather than saying a flat “no” – is the way to go, says psychologist Daniel Koh of Insights Mind Centre.
He adds: “Setting rules lead to a power struggle. In order for teens to compromise and make positive decisions, they need to feel they are involved in decision-making.”
Pauline Teo, for example, picks outfits from online site Amazon for her son, who approves them before she makes the purchase.
But when drama unfolds over outfit choices, it requires one party – usually the parent – to ease up on the rules.
Last week, as Tracy was about to leave her home in a cropped blouse, her mother objected, saying she should wear an inner layer to cover her midriff which was exposed.
But Tan finally relented: “At least she had the good sense to wear high-waisted shorts and she promised to be careful, so I trust her.”
The fear for parents usually comes from concerns of unwanted attention, molestation and upskirt-filming cases, says Koh.
“Parents should tell the child you are worried if anything should happen to them, as any parent would.”
There was a recent incident where Tracy understood the wisdom of her mother’s advice to cover up.
While dressed in a sports jersey and a pair of high-cut running shorts after exercise, she had taken a seat on the train when a man scribbled his contact number on a piece of paper, crushed it into a ball and threw it at her.
“I was quite freaked out and I felt a little too exposed because of what I was wearing,” she says.
Of course, sexual assault, including upskirt-filming, is the responsibility of the perpetrator – not the victim, says Jolene Tan, programmes and communications senior manager at the Singapore Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).
People who experience sexual harassment or assault sometimes blame themselves, says Tan, who has encountered this during counselling work.
“But the reality is that people have experienced sexual assault while wearing a very wide range of clothing.”
She advises parents to be supportive, provide a non-judgmental listening ear and reassure victims that such experiences are not their fault. She says: “We need to create a culture that values sexual consent and personal boundaries, and which respects women’s choices, rather than perpetuating the idea that clothing causes assault.”
In general, teenagers dress a certain way to keep up with the fashion sense of a select group or because it makes them feel more attractive and confident.
Whichever part of their body they flaunt, it signals their confidence in that part – for instance, a short dress to show off nice legs, says Lin of Fei Yue.
She explains: “Parents have to affirm this positively, if not the teen could seek affirmation elsewhere. Tell your teen that, yes, you have very beautiful legs. But your skirt is getting a little too short and be careful who you show these legs to.”
This approach is perhaps better than saying curtly to the child: “Show what?”
Real estate agent Cindy Chan, 49, understands Lin’s advice, which is why she is fairly relaxed with her 18-year-old son and 21-year-old daughter. She sets no rules on their dressing.
Chan says: “Playing with clothing choices is just a phase of growing up, so I think it is OK to let teenagers explore a little and experiment with fashion and their identity.” — The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network