How To Talk To Your Teen About the Way They Dress

In May 2016, I was invited by CBC Radio to speak about a rather controversial topic brewing amongst parents and their teens regarding teenage clothing choices.

This subject was recently spotlighted after a 17-year-old high school senior in Moncton, New Brunswick, made a statement by wearing a full-length halter dress against school policy, exposing her shoulders (including both bra straps), to which she was told by the school’s vice principal to cover up. In response, the subject wrote a three-page letter voicing her feelings about the hyper-sexualization of females in society and most notably states that if a boy at her school gets distracted by her back, he should be “…sent home and practice self-control.”

The opinions that flooded in afterwards were divided, to say the least. While on one hand some parents believe that allowing their children to experiment freely and make mistakes contributes to their development, many more seem opposed to it. Statements such as, “Save it for the nightclub,” “School is a place for learning, not a fashion show,” and my personal favourite — “This psychiatrist doesn’t know what she’s talking about” — were prevalent throughout several of the comment sections online. But the truth is, regardless of my 15 years of experience with youth mental health, and regardless of the numbers of opinions given by parents of varying backgrounds, when it comes to dealing with the teenage brain, we are on a completely different playing field.

Teenagers are at a developmental phase where they’re in the process of creating and asserting their own sense of individual and social identity, which for them is done through experimenting with how they express themselves. This is evident through their ever-changing opinions, lifestyle choices, beliefs, morals, and manners in which they present themselves, with clothing being one of their primary tools of self-expression. All done in a bid to answer the age-old growing pains questions of “Who am I as a person? What are my beliefs? Who do I relate to? Who do I want to become? And how can I express that to the world?”

Since teenage brains are literally neurobiologically different from adults, coupled with their fluctuating hormones, the way they process information also differs greatly from how we may process the very same things. This creates a situation where, when told not to wear something deemed inappropriate for that particular environment, while an adult may understand that it is simply a fashion issue within that specific circumstance, a teenager may perceive it on a chemical level as a personal threat to their entire identity and independence. As a result, they can become fiercely protective and hypersensitive to any potential threats made to their autonomy and are more likely to push the limits in response.

We’re already seeing this today with girls challenging gender inequalities and the sexualization of the female body — the notion of being able to wear what they want despite anyone else’s reactions. As a result, many young women are voicing their anger through blogs centered around bashing “rape culture.” An example of this way of thinking can be found in our subject’s letter where she writes, “…we can no longer wear the clothing we feel comfortable in without the accusation and/or assumption that we are being provocative.” Whether or not society agrees with these girls, we should applaud their initiative to address an issue that is so deeply prevalent today.

Now, I feel we are in a conundrum. As our subject also points out in her letter, we are often teaching our kids to be individualistic, strong, and opinionated, yet when that happens to conflict with our personal choices, we tell them they’re wrong, disobedient, spoiled, and to just listen to the rules because we, the grownups, “say so.” And as you know, when has that ever gone over well?

Especially in today’s youth culture with their high exposure to blogs, social media, Google, YouTube, TV shows with often very adult content, they are beginning to strongly question everything more than the previous generations. Because we are currently experiencing the largest generation gap we have ever known, we need to make more of an effort to evolve our methods of communication.

Yes, rules and boundaries are important to have, but it is equally as paramount that we evolve the way we discuss those rules to form them with our children, not just for them. In fact, it is evident in her letter that our subject does understand why the clothing restrictions exist at her school, but her main issue is that she doesn’t understand how the rules apply to her — so it is our job as the adults to help bridge that gap. Not by spouting off a list of reasons that was handed down to us in a similar fashion and stating that’s the way it is, but by having an actual discussion that is open to change.

Instead of expecting our children to simply comply to rules without further explanation, parents should take a balanced approach by showing respect for their teenager’s decisions, explain why the world may not think like they do and allow them to join the conversation on the same level. As highlighted in a study done by Massey University based on theories in A. Sullivan Palincsar’s review Social Constructivist Perspectives on Teaching and Learning, peer interactions with others of equal status and shared perspectives are more likely to “bring about cognitive development” in youths, than interactions with authority figures. In other words, when there is cognitive conflict between our children and those they perceive to be on an equal plane in terms of openness, understanding and communication, it actually results in a constructive exchange of ideas and exploration of different viewpoints in a collaboration rather than backlash.

We want to teach our children to have strong opinions and stand up for the things they believe in, yet it is also our responsibility to teach our children to understand and respect why rules (and eventually, laws) are made and how they apply to them. We need to move away from treating our teens like they are incapable of understanding “adult matters” because the truth is they are living in a very adult world, whether we like it or not. Although explaining things to a teen may require a little more creativity, patience and understanding, doing it the right way will not only foster closer relationships and higher levels of respect that go both ways, it’ll increase cognitive development and hopefully, produce a future society that isn’t afraid of making changes.

Dolphin Teachers and Pod Classrooms: Why Two Fins are Better than One

94% of employers agree that collaboration is an imperative skill for 21st century job success for new graduates. Even though social bonding is in our human nature, we often forget this truth. I see it all the time — highly intelligent university and college students who minimize their social connection with others because they deem their peers as opponents rather than teammates.

This solitary “tiger” mindset often leads students to become overly competitive and lacking in important social skills. The National Education Association (NEA) deems collaboration as an essential skill for students to learn, because it is inherent in how work is accomplished and how our workforce functions. In my research, I have found the characteristics of one of the world’s most altruistic mammals, the dolphin, to be a powerful metaphor for collaborative teaching and learning approaches.

Now, if dolphins could enter the current work world, they would blow the competition out of the water (no-pun intended)!

Dolphins are famous for their highly social behaviour and collaborative way of life. Living in rich social communities called pods, dolphins use collaboration skills to hunt, play and survive in the deep depths of the ocean. For a second, imagine our education system as the ocean; how can our children survive the deep depths of group work, discussions, sharing, or playtime without the foundation of strong collaboration skills?

One of the first places children can deeply explore collaboration is in the classroom. Twenty-first century classrooms are moving toward greater collaboration, discussion and group tasks in order to promote cooperative learning. As long as the teacher remains a dolphin (and not a strict tiger or permissive jellyfish), the development of pod-like classrooms will have your children swimming towards success.

A wealth of shared knowledge. While hunting, dolphins do not fend for themselves; they consistently work together and share their intellect with one another to enhance the vitality of the pod. The vitality of a collaborative classroom is highly dependent on the interactions and shared knowledge between educators and students.

Children are no longer seen as “empty vessels” that can easily absorb the transferred knowledge from a lacklustre “sage on the stage.” Instead, children are invited to discuss new knowledge in light of their personal experiences, ideas and inquiries in the classroom. Of course, teachers still behold important content about a given topic or subject, but the collaborative approach allows students’ to take part in their own learning process.

Researchers suggest that when students see their experiences and knowledge as valued, they become empowered and motivated to listen and learn in new ways. For my kids, it is always a big confidence booster when they are able to educate and teach something to their own teacher and classmates!

Shared authority fosters autonomy. If you witness the dynamics of a dolphin pod, you can tell there is not one sole leader or distinct rule-maker. Take a look around a collaborative classroom, and you will see this same type of shared authority. Shared authority allows students to take more autonomy over their learning.

By participating in establishing classroom rules, setting goals and co-creating rubric guidelines, some shared authority can teach children the skills they will need to master in the near future (i.e. organization, time-management, communication, etc.).

Research indicates that if students understand they are capable decision makers, they are more likely to take advantage of autonomous and collective learning opportunities outside of the classroom.

Gently guide rather than direct. As soon as a baby orca is born, it’s mother gently nudges it to the surface while modelling swimming motions, which encourages independence right away. When students have more shared responsibility in the classroom, the teacher is seen as more of a guide toward knowledge rather than a director of knowledge.

Rather than directly stating factual information, educators (like mother orca’s) gentle nudge students toward opportunities where they can freely ask questions, provide insights and construct their own understanding. Mediated learning helps students become problem-solvers and high-order thinkers; students are encouraged to use creativity and critical-thinking skills to explore alternative solutions.

In “The Teacher as a Guide: Letting Students Navigate Their Own Learning”, Bonnie Bracy shares how turning her classroom into a hands-on laboratory, tapped into her students’ spirit of curiosity and exploration, and offered rich-learning experiences.

Small-group learning and discussion. Through signature whistles and unique sounds, dolphins are great underwater communicators. Collaborative classrooms often encourage communication through student discussions, group investigations and the development of shared understandings between peers.

Peer-to-peer interaction involves more than just working with others; it involves being respectful, reliable, social, motivating, challenging and competent.

In Tom Wujec’s TEDTalk “Build a Tower, Build a Team”, he discusses how group collaboration during an instructive “marshmallow tower” design competition can encourages teams to find innovative ways to collaborative and develop a shared understanding. Wujec’s study is a prime example of how diverse thinking brings multiple individual and cultural perspectives into collaboration, which not only generates more holistic results than individual efforts, but it also creates meaningful knowledge for a greater number of people.

The development of social bonds. The unique communication of dolphins allows them to develop strong social bonds with members of their pod, as well as other species. A community provides an environment within which rich social bonds can form – including those of friends, mentors and role models.

The only way to learn essential social skills is to try them out; a collaborative classroom should invite students to learn how to communicate, display teamwork skills and resolve conflict (through trial and error). Developing social bonds with peers and teachers will help students foster their own social identity and social responsibility.

The Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment (GLOBE) Program is a world-wide, hands-on school-based science program that allows students to collaborate with each other to impact global problems. GLOBE’s vision promotes and supports students, teachers and scientists to collaborate and generate solutions towards our worlds current and future issues.

These type of initiatives are teaching children to become involved contributors toward our social community; educators need to consider how to structure the social frame of collaborative activities to ensure positive peer-to-peer relationships and active citizenship can be nurtured. Here’s another bonus: social interaction and social bonding both increase dopamine levels in our brains – and what teacher wouldn’t want a classroom filled with happy, healthy and motivated kids?

As a metaphor, dolphins remind us of the value of collaboration and how it can extend beyond the work world. As parents and educators (coaches, role models, mentors…) we want the current generation of children to derive a great satisfaction from working with others while fostering greatness, inspiration and encouragement. Since children spend so much time in school, the collaborative classroom can offer rich learning opportunities that teach students the dolphin-like social skills they will need to be able to function successfully in a collaborative world.