Teaching modesty about much more than clothing

June 23, 2011 

This afternoon I was typing up the packing list for Jesus Camp. Most things never change: no drugs, no alcohol, no weapons of mass destruction. However, each summer finds me racking my brain for what I need to add to the dress code. A lot has changed over the years, as I learned when my middle schoolers found a stack of pictures in the youth room.

"Miss Alison, we found some really old pictures!"

Glancing at the stack I could see they were from my era, high school in the 1990s. I was dismayed that the kids couldn't tell how hip my friends and I looked in our Keds and slouchy socks.

"How do you know they're old?" I asked.

"Look at all the clothes they're wearing!" they explained.

Fashion sure has changed since we wore T-shirts so big we tied them to the side with a scrunchie.

I'm not campaigning that we return to the glory days of hammer-pants and hypercolor T-shirts (don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about). However, as I ask teens to "please not bring shorts with 'Juicy' written across the buttocks," I think that we, as a society, have hit a low point in what we're allowing kids to wear.

This isn't ruining their fun, it's an important opportunity to teach them the virtue of modesty. This is much more than a dress code -- it's how they see themselves and others.

To review: A virtue is a habit of doing good. We all know habits are things we do without thinking about them, like biting our nails or buckling our seatbelts. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that acquiring virtue requires effort, discipline and instruction. This is especially the case with modesty, the virtue described as "protecting the intimate center of the person. ... Modesty is decency. It inspires one's choice of clothing. It keeps silence or reserve where there is evident risk of unhealthy curiosity. It is discreet."

A lot more has changed since my friends and I rocked the oversized shirts of the 1990s. We have turned into a culture obsessed with reality-based entertainment. Getting attention -- for pretty much anything -- is the new the goal. While I'm not so concerned with the Kardashians, I do worry about the messages this sends to teens about relationships and what makes them valuable as persons.

The Catechism explains that "teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person." Modesty extends far beyond the dress code for summer camp -- it's teaching children that who they are is to be protected, teaching them to first respect themselves. What we encourage -- or forbid -- youth to wear teaches them respect for themselves and others. It's teaching them to attract attention to who they are -- not to what they look like -- and to see the same qualities in those they encounter.

As you're shopping with your kids this summer, be sure their clothes are sending the right messages. (Hint: "Juicy" should probably not be one of them).

Alison Griswold is the director of youth ministry at St. Francis By the Sea Catholic Church. Follow her on Twitter @alisongriz. Read her blog at www.teamcatholic.blogspot.com.

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