In Defense of “The Orange Shirt”
I’m still an avid reader of The Friend, even though my youngest graduated Primary last year, and when I read this month’s issue, the story “The Orange Shirt” caught my attention. I am aware that there are plenty in the blogosphere who object to stories that teach dress standards to children, and I imagined there would be a bit of a dustup over this one, as well.
I was right. Last week, BCC chimed in with its response: Children Can’t Dress Immodestly.
I hope to respond to a couple of thoughts in the BCC post and general concerns of those who oppose teaching modesty to Primary children, and a few observations about what I think the latest Friend story does quite well.
It its first paragraph, the BCC post claims that children cannot dress immodestly for the same reason seven year olds cannot sin. I’m intrigued by that notion. On the one hand, I agree that the natural innocence of small children does shield them from sin, and yet we still teach them not to lie, not to steal, to be kind to one another. In other words, the absence of ability to sin – or at least accountability for sin – does not keep us from teaching them the commandments and proper behavior. Indeed even small children can lie; they can steal; they can treat one another without kindness.
Similarly, the natural innocence of children also shields them from being immodest. I agree with that idea. When my oldest was nearly two, he regularly stripped down to nothing and ran out into the front yard. He knew nothing about modesty or immodesty. I just knew he preferred to wear no clothes. (Now in his thirties he’s more socially acceptable – he wears clothes but goes without shoes as often as he can.) Nevertheless, his mother and I taught him to wear clothes because in our society, wearing clothes – even for little children – is important.
One of the real concerns of those who oppose teaching modesty to Primary children is that the way we teach modesty tends to sexualize those whom we are teaching. And the sexualization of Primary children is wrong. The suggestion is that if we teach young women that they must dress modestly to avoid stirring up sexual fantasies in young men, then we are sexualizing the young women in the process. I agree with that line of reasoning, and for that very reason, I did not teach my daughters to dress modestly to avoid tempting young men. And I taught my sons that they are the keepers of their thoughts, not the young women around them.
It does seem the church has taken some significant steps in the direction of teaching modesty in dress at earlier and earlier ages. Especially noted are the changing of pictures in the gospel art kit to put sleeves on sleeveless dresses in the last few years.
Another concern among the don’t-teach-modesty adherents is that the teaching of a particular dress code leads us to judge those who don’t adhere to the dress code. While I share the valid concern that as Mormons we are way to judgmental of one another and of those who are not of our faith, I don’t quite understand the notion that we should not teach standards to our children for fear of judging one another.
Can’t we do both – teach the standards, and teach how to love one another? Isn’t that what the Savior modeled for us? When He forgave the adulteress, He was clear: He loved her enough to prevent her being stoned, but He also expected her to forsake her sin. Don’t we have a similar problem if we teach the Word of Wisdom? I think many children from good LDS families are surprised to learn when they become adults that not everyone who drinks alcohol is a raging drunk. But that does not change the truth that our modern prophets have taught that we should abstain from alcohol. There is a natural process for those who learn standards also to learn over time that those who have different standards may still be fine upstanding people who happen to have different standards.
In the BCC post, Mathew puts the Friend’s tagline “based on a true story” in quotation marks. I don’t know if that’s because he’s quoting the Friend, or because he wonders if it really is based on a true story. Some of the commenters seemed to question that the article is based on a true story. In fact, in this case, it is based on a true story. I know because I chatted with the author of the article, and she described to me the actual incident from her own life. Very similar to what happened in the story.
Before I say any more about the story itself, I have this thought about why this issue is important to the church. I attended a regional leadership meeting years ago when I served as bishop. Members of the general auxiliary presidencies where there, including the Primary, and we were taught that there was concern even then – over a decade ago – that what we once might have taught in Young Womens or in Aaronic Priesthood quorums we now needed to teach at an earlier age because of the earlier grip of society on our children.
As a father, I’ve seen the same thing. Television shows aimed at “tweens” are far more provocative now than I remember their being when my older children were younger. And physical maturation of children seems to come earlier than it did. So it is no surprise to me that there is an effort to teach certain age-appropriate lessons at an earlier age.
Have we got it completely right? Maybe not. But it does not mean we should not look for the best way to teach the best things.
Which brings me to “The Orange Shirt.”
There are a couple of things I thought were awesome in the story. First, Stacey is in a position to make her own choice. Our children need opportunities to make choices in order to learn to make choices. So it’s good for parents to read about children who are in that position. Second, Stacey is required to choose. She has the opinion of the cool older sister Lexie, and she has the positive peer pressure of her friend Amanda.
The issue with the shirt itself is almost secondary to me, but I note that it is not just that it’s a sleeveless shirt, but one with spaghetti straps and is too short. It was not modest. We don’t know who taught Stacey about modesty. We don’t know if it was a Primary teacher or her mother (or her friend Amanda’s mother). But Stacey had an impression about why she wanted to dress a certain way, and she knew that the short spaghetti-strapped shirt was not it. I say hooray for Stacey!
The BCC article poo-poos the idea that a ten-year old girl might receive confirmation from the Holy Ghost about a clothing choice. (And it erroneously asserts that the article teaches that a child’s access to the Holy Ghost is based on clothing choices.) But my experience listening to plenty of conference talks is that when we choose well, the Holy Ghost will confirm our choices. I think for a ten year old girl, making her own choice about clothing, and choosing to eschew something that doesn’t match what she’s been taught, the confirmation of the Holy Ghost would be a wonderful and merciful thing.
Finally, Stacey realizes that Amanda’s big sister Lexie doesn’t find her uncool because she didn’t choose the orange shirt. Stacey acknowledges that she wanted to try the orange shirt, but is in the end pleased that she didn’t. This is a lesson we’d like our children to learn over and over again in life as they are tempted to step off the path. Maybe a clothing choice is minor compared to other choices our children will ultimately make, but each step which allows the spirit to confirm a correct choice is chance for our children to feel the spirit, to learn what that feels like, and to grow a testimony. Those are all good things.
This post is also available at A Latter-day Voice.