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Clothing and the Character of the Child, Part I

January 2, 2009

Dr. Timothy Paul Jones serves as the Assistant Professor of Leadership and Church Ministry at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Our daughter Hannah is rapidly closing in on thirteen years of age. She is tall for her age. Her dark curls and tawny skin mirror the features of the birthparents who brought her to a Romanian orphanage when she was eight months old. Hannah has been part of our family since she was seven years old. She is the apple of her Daddy's eye, the princess of her Daddy's heart, and at this moment she's in need of some new clothes. In our household, this means a Daddy-Daughter Date Day, primarily because, in our family, Dad tends to have more patience than Mom when it comes to the quest for appropriate clothing.

And so here I am, meandering into a local mall, hoping that this year's range of suitable selections is better than last year's.

It isn't.

The jeans that are long enough for Hannah's ever-lengthening legs seem to have gained this extra length by trimming too many inches off the top. The sweatpants that fit her best have "PINK" emblazoned across the backside. And the messages that glitter on the chests of several otherwise-appropriate shirts lead to immediate vetoes from our household's executive branch: "I Want What I Want Now," one hoodie declares, while a nearby t-shirt boasts, "I Have an Attitude and I Know How to Use It." "Sooner or Later I'll Get What I Want," another sweatshirt announces. Interestingly, the brand names on the tags are "Personal Identity" and "Self Esteem"-almost as if Erik Erikson and Sigmund Freud crept in during the manufacturing process and retagged the clothes to resolve adolescent girls' supposed identity crises. To Hannah's credit, she takes it all in good humor, knowing from past experience that, once a veto has been declared, her father will not budge.

By this point, a good many readers have likely identified me as some sort of development-squelching fundamentalist prude. I've heard the protests before, as a pastor, children's minister, and youth minister-more from parents, oddly enough, than from children: "Come on, it's just the kids' clothes. Why make such a big deal about it? Let them wear what everyone else is wearing! If we don't let them dress that way, they won't be able to fit in."

I've even had one parent couch his protest in evangelistic terms: "If I don't let my daughter wear the same clothes as everyone else, no one will listen to her when she tries to witness at school." Somehow, I cannot imagine that the low-slung waistline on his daughter's jeans led any male in her school to anything but the most prurient interest in God's created order.

So why am I so unyielding on this issue?

Simply this: The clothes that our children wear do not merely cover the nakedness of their flesh; they shape and reflect the contours of our children's souls. What I encourage my child to wear is a statement not merely of fashion but of theology and axiology-and this link between our theology and our wardrobes is not a recent phenomenon.

The foliage that Adam and Eve clutched against their groins in the shadow of the Tree of Knowledge made a profoundly theological declaration. Those mute leaves pronounced the primal couple's intent to cover their sins with their own efforts and experiences. In this, those leafy aprons spoke in unison with the Gnostics of the second century, with Pelagius in the fourth, and with the theological liberalism of the modern era, all seeking some path to holiness other than divine propitiation. The second ensemble of clothing in the Garden of Eden was no less theological-the flesh and fleece of a freshly-slaughtered beast, a covering given by grace which declared beyond any doubt the divinely-ordained link between sin and death.

Later in the Torah, the Israelites received a command from God to stitch tzitzit in the corners of their robes, entwining a cerulean thread in each tassel. And what was the rationale for this divinely-ordained fashion statement? "That when you shall see them, you may remember all the commandments of the Lord, and not follow your own thoughts and eyes, going astray after others" (Num. 15:39). What the children of Israel wore on their bodies reflected and shaped the disposition of their souls.

This principle is no less true for my child this afternoon at Oxmoor Mall.

The sweatpants with "PINK" plastered across the posterior declare far more than a child's preferred pastel hue; they present as public property a part of the body that ought to be preserved as private property. The three-inch gap between shirt and jeans devalues the child by turning her body into a tool to attract the opposite gender's attention instead of a vessel of beauty for the glory of God.

The t-shirt with "I Love My Dad Cuz He Spoils Me" emblazoned across the chest links love with what I can get out of a relationship and lays the foundation for the relational disposition that has landed millions of couples in divorce court over the past half-century. "My Smile Gets Me What I Want" scrawled up the leg of a pair of pajamas implies that it is acceptable to exploit physical beauty as a tool to manipulate others. When a sweatshirt declares "Remember Me: I'll Be Famous," this comes with a tacit implication that the superficiality of celebrity might be a valid and viable goal for life. The hoodie that reads "I May Be Small But I'm the Boss" presents rebellion against parental authority as something to elicit a lighthearted smirk instead of loving discipline.

Please understand my point here: I am not claiming that clothing, in itself, causes children to behave badly-that would be tantamount to declaring it was the presence of fruit in the garden that caused Adam and Eve to sin. And I'm not suggesting that children's clothing must be unfashionable for them to be holy. What I am suggesting is that these fusions of cotton, polyester, and iron-on transfers are not values-neutral. They are declarations of what we believe, what we value, and what we expect our children to believe and to value.

In part II on Monday, Dr. Jones will offer some practical recommendations to help parents protect their children in this ongoing war for biblical purity.

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