The Soul of Parenting: Battle Over Short Skirts

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short skirt

I received the following email in response to a previous column on doing battle with your child over observance:

“I found your article very interesting. If your child is surrounded by people whose dress code i.e. length of skirt is not how you dress or how you want your child to dress what is the best way to help her understand the reason you aren’t happy for her to wear a shorter skirt?”

The issue of skirt lengths is different in many ways than the issue I wrote about previously regarding boys who were pushing back against wearing kippot and tzitzit. As I wrote at the time, one needs to consider these issues from halachic, developmental and educational perspectives. When it comes to the laws of tzniut we are potentially dealing more with laws rather than with practices that have their roots in custom. That automatically means that the halachic stakes are higher and the room for compromise is much narrower. In addition, it could be argued that from a developmental point of view, the stakes are higher as well since appearances play a much more powerful role in a young girl’s identity, self-concept and the like than tzitzit do in the life of a boy. That’s why the educational piece is so much more important and why it is so much more critical to start addressing the issue when children are younger. Left unattended, it will be much more difficult to address when the teen years arrive.

One stream of educational thought is to find ways when kids are younger to speak to them about the value of tzniut or modesty, and this has little or nothing to do with dress per se. The verse (Micha 6:8) which is so often cited in this regard is most instructive:

  הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-ה’ דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ.

“It has been told to you, O man, what is good, and what Hashem requires of you: only to do justly, and love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”

The word hatzne’a (related to the word tzniut) means modestly or humbly, but note that this is an attribute that both men and women are supposed to have when walking through life in general. In this sense, skirt length is simply part of a bigger picture of what HaKadosh Baruch Hu (God) wants from all of us, men and women, and it’s important that we teach that to our children, boys and girls.

Where in your family life are the opportunities to teach your children about humility and modesty? Some may express it in the way that they spend or don’t spend money on clothes, or vacations or luxury items. Others may find opportunities to discuss it in the context of speech, both in how we speak and what we speak about. One might be able to express it at times when celebrating accomplishments or how one acts in private or, yes, how we and others dress. Halacha provides guidelines in some of these areas but in most aspects of life how we implement the aspiration for modesty is left to us. And equally important, I think, is finding opportunities to actually explicitly tell our kids at the time that the reason we do and don’t act a particularly way is because as Jews we are committed to tzniut as a value. “Yes, we can afford to do X, but we don’t think that’s the way we as Jews want to spend our money”. Laying this groundwork repeatedly, explicitly and implicitly, when children are young will help set the context for a variety of discussions when the teen years present the challenges of everything from lifestyle to skirt length.

And what is a parent to do when young women start to push back? I asked a couple of colleagues who are administrators of girls’ high schools to respond. Here are their suggestions:

Rivka Kahan, Principal of Maayanot Yeshiva High School

“My answer to this question is that I would focus on the reasons it is important to the family to dress modestly, rather than focus on why not to wear short skirts. The more the family is able to share and reflect on why they find this meaningful (whether that is simply a sense of fidelity and commitment to halakha, something specific about modest dress, or a combination), the more likely it is to be personally compelling to their daughter; I find that negative reflections on what not to do are much less compelling. Additionally, I always find that conveying a sense of happiness and joy around religious practice is incredibly powerful, so being aware of that and seeking to express happiness about avodat Hashem writ large often translates to a positive feeling about the particulars of religious life as well.” 

Deena Kobre, Principal of Naaleh High School for Girls

“Regarding the peer pressure aspect, if the child is surrounded by other girls who don’t maintain the same level of tznius…we can ask similar questions about other standards we have set for our children for example honesty, middos, kashrus, etc.  We hope to inculcate within our children our own standards and values, starting from a very young age.  We try to teach our children, by example, that it doesn’t matter what “they” are doing, we have to have our own internal compass or definition of right and wrong.  Sometimes the issue is very black and white – which can make it easier, ironically – other times it is more grey.  It’s not a matter of judgment, or something that makes other people “better” or “worse”, but that is simply not what we do in our home.  This becomes much more challenging during adolescence when peer acceptance and peer standards begin to define our children’s outlooks. Our job is to help shore up their sense of self confidence and inner strength before those tempestuous years so that when they are inevitably faced with a conflict between our family values and their peers’ choices, they are able to make the decision we hope – and pray – they will.” 

In other words, we should be educating our children in the beauty of halacha, we should be articulating for them from the time that they are young, at every opportunity we get, why these values, as they are expressed in a variety of contexts, are so important, so enriching and so valuable. At the same time, push comes to shove, when children question those assumptions, there are certain lines in the sand which we cannot cross, simply because the halacha will not allow it. As a parent, that is a difficult place to find oneself in the face of a child’s tears and anger. But whoever said being a parent was easy?

Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz has been a day school educator and administrator for more than 35 years who currently teaches full time at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School. He is Educational Director of the Legacy 613 Foundation, runs tefillah education workshops for teachers and has served as an adjunct at Azrieli Graduate School. He is author of the Koren Ani Tefilla Siddur series, winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.