From the moment I gave birth to a daughter, I knew this day would come. The conversation was crucial and it would have been negligent of me to avoid it. I just didn’t expect to be having it so soon; she’s only five!
“Darling,” I began gently one day, crouching down to her level to make eye contact as I held her hands tenderly in mine. “Leggings are not pants.”
As her face registered confusion, I seized the opportunity to continue. “You see, leggings are more like tights,” I explained carefully. “That means they’re different to jeans or pants. We don’t wear them the same way.” She regarded me defiantly. “But I like these leggings!” she protested. I remained calm, maintained eye contact, and spoke kindly yet firmly. “So do I darling, your leggings are lovely. They just need a skirt over the top of them. Or a dress. Heck, even a longer t-shirt.”
Reluctantly, she complied and I felt some small satisfaction in the same way I do on the rare occasion any child of mine eats a green vegetable. Mother Of The Year.
Afterwards though, I thought about our conversation and wondered if I’d made a mistake. Parenting is made up of a million doubtful moments like this and mostly, only your child’s future therapist will be able to say how badly you screwed up.
Was it wrong to impose my views about leggings onto my daughter? Had I crushed her little spirit? Or was it my duty as a parent, hell as a woman, to pass on the single fashion philosophy I live by?
Because surely that’s what parents do. Imprint our values onto our children in big ways and small. Share our wisdom. For example, in our household we teach our kids that gay people should be able to marry and that hopefully it will soon happen in Australia. We teach them to have compassion towards asylum seekers no matter how they arrive here and that NO child should ever be sent to live behind razor wire. We teach them to recycle and to turn off lights and taps to help the environment. Since they’re all values my husband and I hold dear, how could we raise our children any other way?
Still, the leggings conversation started me thinking about which beliefs are OK to project and which should be left up to them to figure out for themselves.
But beyond those kinds of things, it can become murky. Is believing in a particular religion different to passing on your beliefs about vegetarianism or feminism? What about footy teams? Political parties?
Perhaps it comes down to how you view children in relation to parents. Are they simply an extension of mum and dad, like whacking a sun deck extension on the back of the house?
There are many parents whose boundaries between themselves and their kids are blurred, naming their sons John Jr, dressing their daughters in mini-me outfits or living their lives vicariously from the wings or the sidelines while their kids are pushed to achieve what Mum and Dad never could.
Interestingly though, in many families, God is a growing area of DIY. More and more parents are refusing to send their kids to formal scripture because “they can make up their own minds about what to believe when they’re older.”
Not everyone agrees with that approach. My friend Kate describes her family as ‘submarine Catholics’ – “we surface at Christmas and Easter” – and recently faced the religion issue with her son who railed against being confirmed because he said it was boring and pointless. “He may have a point, but I put it in sporting terms,” she told me. “I said: ‘Ben, any kid can go to the park and play a scratch game of footy. But if you want the jersey and a regular place in the team, you need to pay your subs and sign on.’ I’ve told him Catholicism is a starting point and later on he might want to switch codes or even drop it altogether, but for now, he’s on the same team as Dad and me.”
Two of my girlfriends have daughters the same age as mine and I asked them if my Leggings-Aren’t-Pants mandate was the wrong message for my five year old. “I think we instill our ideas into our kids through osmosis and harsh criticism,” one emailed me. “Just like our parents did to us. I don’t wear leggings as pants but my five year old does and when she’s older, I hope she stops! Children are given so little space to make their own choices. We have to trust that we learnt from our mistakes and they should too.”
My second friend agreed. “I am captain of the Leggings-Aren’t-Pants army for adults but while style can be learned it should start organically. It’s an important part of self-expression.”
Right, well that’s another dollar for the therapy jar.
POSTSCRIPT: I have been more than a little surprised at the voracity of some of the comments below. Particularly, I’ve been shocked and angered by some pretty outrageous accusations that I would ‘body shame’ my child.
Seriously? Many people appear to have entirely missed the point of this post so I’ll spell it out. Clearly, what a 5 year old wears is of little consequence to anyone – even me. The issue I wanted to explore was the way parents – consciously or unconsciously- project their own values and beliefs onto their children.
The leggings conversation was merely a superficial springboard into some bigger questions. My tongue was firmly in my cheek. My daughter was unscathed.
Some of you have asked why I have a problem with leggings as pants (if it’s not a body issue, then what?) and I’ve had to have a think about that! It comes down to this. For me, it’s a bit like saying “underwear isn’t a swimsuit” or “your knickers go under your clothes not over them” or “don’t wear socks with sandals”. Just some pretty basic parameters that I apply to dressing and wish to pass on to my children.
Is it a big deal? Of course not. But as I often do in my writing about parenthood, I wanted to shine a light on my own p0tential failings as a mother (is it appropriate to pass on fashion philosophies? what about policital or social ones?) in order to be honest and authentic and explore a bigger picture.
Do you have particular values that you pass on to (or plan to pass on to) your kids?