Dress for (childhood) success

My son, Tony’s charter school has a … well … uniform suggests that it’s stricter than it is, and dress code sounds a bit looser than reality. Let’s call it a sort-of uniform. He has to wear khaki or navy shorts or chinos, red, white or blue polos with the school logo, or white button-downs. It’s the U.S. flag, rendered in separates, plus khaki — patriotism, as set off by a neutral tone. The “uniform” is sufficiently generic and locally popular enough that everybody from Wal-Mart to Old Navy to local shops has a section set aside that meets the requirements, and several businesses in town can handle embroidering the logo on the polos.

I can remember a time in my distant youth when the idea of a school dress code, let alone a uniform, would have set my anarchistic heart a-boil. How dare those fascist bastards tell students what to wear!

But that was before I watched a generation of tweens adopt garb that made Times Square hookers look tastefully attired. I’m sorry, but “cameltoe”‘ should not be visible on a 12-year-old girl. And I know that I’m a bit behind the times, but I stubbornly maintain that boys on their way to … anywhere … shouldn’t flash underwear between the boundaries of their wife-beaters and their baggy shorts.

So screw my old black-flaggish sentiments and bring on the polos and chinos. Or, more accurately, watch as I choose to associate with people and institutions who maintain slightly higher standards. And good for them if they still fly the black flag.

Methinks the bunny could use a jacket

Dad and the kid get ready for a nice-casual dinner

It’s not just school — my wife and I are raising Tony to present himself better than seems to be the norm today in the world around us. I’ve been to weddings — and not casual affairs either — where people showed up in jeans (and acted like barbarians). I’d like Tony to recognize that as unacceptable unless specifically invited to dress down by the hosts (the behavior is another matter — he doesn’t ever get to carry on like a Vandal sacking Rome). And I’ve been to nice restaurants where clods showed up wearing t-shirts and shorts and got bent out of shape when they were tucked in by the kitchen. I want Tony to reflexively shy away from doing that because he sees it as disrespectful to the other guests and the establishment (as well as making him look like an idiot).

Manners have to match. That means simple courtesy (really, how hard is it to say “please” and “thank you”?) and a generally respectful attitude toward the people he meets. That doesn’t necessarily mean he has to memorize the difference between a fish fork and a … ummm … OK, well at least I know there’s such a thing as a fish fork.  But basic table manners are required as part of our small effort to keep the next dark age at bay for one more generation.

Yeah, I know that I risk stirring up a hornets nest by suggesting that anybody should show a little concern for the people around them and put their best foot forward at anytime, anywhere. That’s tough. I guess I’m just a rigid son of a bitch.

Tony has a P.J. O'Rourke moment at a formal event

To achieve our ends, good behavior is just the expected norm in our house and we’ve treated dressing well as a pleasure. Even at five, Tony has two sport coats — one linen and the other cotton. He picked out his own bow tie and his neck tie. He doesn’t have to dress up, he gets to dress up for restaurants, weddings and other slightly (or very) special occasions.

And it has worked so far. He particularly favors the bow tie.

It’s not like we’re dolling him up like Little Lord Fauntleroy. He mostly wears t-shirts and shorts during the summer and pull-overs and long pants during the cooler weather. But there’s an understanding that nicer clothes is appropriate for nicer occasions. And that it’s respectful (and enjoyable) to wear those clothes. I think that’s a fair standard to maintain.

We’re not breaking the bank to do this, either. His linen jacket cost twelve bucks on a remainder rack and the chino jacket set us back another twenty (mom did indulge him on the ties, though). I also made sure he has a decent pair of brown, lace-up shoes in the rotation — they don’t cost any more than velcro, though they’re getting harder to find. He was proud when he learned to tie them all by himself, too. It’s not exactly black tie, but it sets a decent tone for a kid his age.

I have no illusions that Tony will happily stick to the program throughout his life. He’ll hit his teen years and he’ll rebel. But at least we’re giving him a decent starting point for that rebellion.

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