Q: My husband won't allow our 11-year-old son to wear anything to school except jeans and polo shirts. The other kids wear big T-shirts and baggy styles, and they're making fun of him. I'm afraid it's going to hurt his school performance and his self-esteem. Am I right, and if so, how can I convince my husband?
M.S., Virginia Beach, Va.
A: As long as there are no underlying problems or hidden agendas, the child will most likely benefit from being allowed to ,, blend in with the other kids.
"Being teased by one's peers is terribly embarrassing and makes going to school a horrible experience," says P.L., a reader from San Antonio, Texas. "If the worst thing your son does is express a harmless desire to dress like everyone else, thank God above and go get him some new clothes."
Putting the issue into a broader context is what helped Jean Griffin of Park Ridge, N.J., understand when her daughter wanted to wear the peer group's latest fashions.
"There are many more important issues that come up that parents may need to be tough on, so you can't be hard-line on all the lesser things or everyone will be miserable all the time," Ms. Griffin says.
Self-esteem issues become extremely important as children approach adolescence, says Eugene Beresin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard University.
"The more the parents can allow the child to develop autonomy and identify with his peer group, the better for his self-esteem," says Dr. Beresin, who directs child and adolescent psychiatric training at Massachusetts General Hospital.
As for changing dad's mind, the wife must first figure out why he feels the way he does.
"Is this the way he himself was raised?" Dr. Beresin asks. "Does he think the boy needs more discipline? Does he think that dressing differently will build character?"
Next, try to help him understand what his son is feeling.
"It may be she needs to help him understand what it's like to be that age and what it feels like to be on the outs," Dr. Beresin says. "It also depends on the son's personality. If he's adaptable and outgoing, he may be resilient. But if he's fragile and timid, standing out in this way could do a lot of damage."
When one parent from Redondo Beach, Calif., faced this same situation, she found a practical way to influence her husband.
"I went out and bought him something that he definitely wasn't going to wear because it would make him look like a nerd," Josephine Cullison says. "Then explain to him that this is how the child feels. It worked for me."
While it may seem that the mother is right, Dr. Beresin warns parents to be sure there isn't more to this dilemma than meets the eye.
"It's possible that the boy knows there are lots of others wearing Polo shirts, and he's being defiant against his father or trying to pull his parents apart for some reason," Dr. Beresin says.
"It could be that the boy wants to dress this way to get into a clique, and you need to know if that clique is desirable or not."
To help answer these questions, both parents need to gather some facts. Talk to the boy's teacher or principal to find out the importance of dress to the school culture.
"You want to know if your child is the only one who dresses differently or if lots of styles are tolerated," Dr. Beresin says. "Find out how the boy gets along with his peers in general. Are there are other problems? How does the boy function in school?"
Finally, the parents need to consider whether the problem really centers not on their son's clothes, but on their own relationship.
"The parents need to look at what else they argue about," Dr. Beresin says. "His allowance? Finances in general? This argument may have nothing to do with the boy. It's not unusual at all for that to happen."
After parents have finished this background work, they need to sit down and decide together how to handle the problem.
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