Granddaughter’s Embarrassing Style of Dress

My friend Aileen, a grandmother of 73, does not know what to do, if anything, about this situation. Her granddaughter, Madison, a sophomore in high school, is doing well, both academically and athletically. She also has wonderful social skills with her peers and older adults. However, she has shown up at recent family gatherings and holidays in scanty attire that Aileen finds most inappropriate and offensive. Aileen’s husband, Madison’s grandfather, is also embarrassed.

The grandparents have a very good relationship with their daughter and her husband, and also with their granddaughter. They’ve tried to nicely express their concerns to the mom, dad and granddaughter. The granddaughter just attributes her grandparents’ comments about the way she dresses to their being old and out of touch. The parents just shrug their shoulders. 

I didn’t think too much about this conversation with Aileen, thinking, well, how bad could it be? Then recently, I ran into Madison as she was heading into school, and I was, to say the least, shocked and appalled at what she had on, or didn’t have on. I can only assume there is no school dress policy, and apparently there is a lack of good judgment on the part of the granddaughter and the parents. What’s some good advice?

There are two main issues embedded in this situation. First there is the issue of the grandparents, who, when they try “to nicely express their concerns,” are greeted with rejection by their daughter and granddaughter. Madison, who sounds like a wonderful young woman in so many important ways, may not realize and/or doesn’t care that she is being disrespectful to her grandparents. And, alas, by shrugging off the grandparents’ concerns, Madison’s parents are reinforcing and validating the disrespect. (It is not known if the parents shrugging off how Madison dresses means they don’t have an issue with her choices, or if they’ve lost control of the situation and are resigned.)

It would be an unreasonable request if the grandparents were asking Madison to change totally her style of dress under all circumstances, at all times. They’re not. They are asking that she dress more conservatively when she is spending time with them. It’s a simple, straightforward matter of Madison deciding what is more important to her: respecting her grandparents’ request that effects her on rare occasions, or her being adamant about dressing how she wants to dress, no matter what.

Being nice about it did not work for the grandparents, so they may want to consider a stronger, more explicit message. “Madison, when you’re with us, we would so appreciate it if you didn’t wear sausage-tight clothes and expose your gluteal cleft, breasts and cleavage, navel, and upper thighs. It makes us uncomfortable as we feel we’re seeing waaaaaaay too much of you.” Hearing her grandparents use this terminology may embarrass Madison into wearing less revealing clothes when she is with them, but Madison may again ignore their request.

The second issue you raise, how Madison dresses for school, is about school dress codes and uniforms. Madison’s school probably has a dress code, as The National Center for Education Statistics ( estimates that over 70% of public schools do have one. Although dress codes are always being legally challenged as limiting freedom of expression, these challenges typically are superseded by the need to provide a safe environment – that is, “Most measures in school dress codes are intended to limit exacerbating messages and provocative displays, whether intentional or unintentional.”

Whether dress codes are enforced by school personnel is a different issue, but regardless of the extent to which the schools are enforcing them, parents should nevertheless fully enforce them. Teaching their kids decorum, common sense, and how to dress and behave appropriately based on circumstances is a basic parental responsibility. For those schools lacking a dress code, parents can push for one either directly with their school administration or through their local Parent Teacher Associations (PTAs).

School uniforms have been a mainstay of most private schools, and even though there is much controversy, more public schools have been requiring them. In fact, the US Department of Education published that in 2009-10, about 23 percent of public school principals reported that their school required students to wear uniforms, an increase from 12 percent in 1999-2000. Other relevant statistics include: Average annual cost to parents for school uniforms is $249; 95% of teachers feel wearing school uniforms has resulted in positive student behavior (only 37% of parents agree)

Other research that supports school uniforms in the public schools revealed that 68 percent of the parents believed the uniform policy improved overall academic performance. Eighty-eight percent of the parents thought the code reduced teasing between boys and girls. Eighty-four percent felt the uniform code promoted equality between the sexes. Perhaps most revealing was the fact that 80 percent of the girls and 62 percent of the boys reported liking to wear uniforms (

So, where does all this leave Aileen, a grandmother who finds her granddaughter’s mode of dress embarrassing? As already suggested, she and her husband might deliver to Madison and her parents a more strongly worded request that Madison accommodate them by dressing more conservatively when they are together. If Madison refuses, they can either accept her decision, or, depending on the extent of their discomfort, they can either limit or eliminate time spent with her. I am hopeful that if Madison doesn’t come through for them on her own, then her parents weigh in on the side of expecting her to show some respect for the grandparents.

My grander hope is that all parents help their children learn about fashion expectations and appropriateness so that school administrators, teachers and employers don’t have to do it in their stead.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, regularly published every Thursday,

will be published every other Thursday through Labor Day.

Wishing all my readers a wonderful summer!

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