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24/06/2016

Elizabeth Monk: Dress code is needed protection for students

A dress code in schools is necessary and appropriate. It protects young people, it teaches young people social codes and it protects teachers.

One critique of a cocktail dresses code is that the girls who are physically mature are the ones being singled out. But the key question we should be talking about is not: “Is there too much onus on the developed girls?”

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The development we need to be talking about is the development of the pre-frontal cortex. It’s a less “sexy” part of the body to talk about, but it’s important to understand.

The pre-frontal cortex is in charge of managing social behaviour, decision-making, and understanding consequences and implications of behaviour. It also helps with learning rules. In summary, you can’t reliably make good decisions until the pre-frontal cortex has finished developing. And guess what? It is not developed until the early 20s — unlike other parts of the body.

It’s a case of simple biology.

So some kids might make bad decisions that might really, really embarrass or otherwise affect them in the near or far future, such as presenting a highly sexualized persona without understanding the messages they are sending. To protect the children, we need a guideline.

Such a guideline is not sexist; boys in my school district are discouraged from showing their underwear.

A dress code protects students from their inconsistent ability to make good decisions. It’s not their fault the pre-frontal cortex is in flux, and it’s not a case of adults at the school board being totalitarian — that’s exactly the kind of black-and-white thinking a not-yet-ready-for-prime-time pre-frontal cortex can fall into.

While protecting youth, the dress code also teaches them social codes. Some youth might not like them, but at least they are getting that social education.

Parents these days seem quick to criticize schools for not teaching kids every life skill out there on top of, oh yeah, academics.

If parents are going to have that expectation, whether or not it’s fair, then this is a situation where parents need to stand by their school boards and thank them for teaching that life skill.

Or, to be realistic, enforcing that life skill, since we all know a kid can leave home looking socially appropriate, and have executed a transformation by the time bell rings.

Maybe a dress code feels unfair to some kids, but you know what? No dress code would be really unfair to teachers, especially male ones. Otherwise, what does a teacher do if a student is exposing the top of his buttocks or a flimsy tank has slipped dangerously toward nipple land?

Maybe a female teacher can do a “Yo, girlfriend, FYI, I’m seeing a lot of flesh”-type chat; God forbid that a male teacher do the same thing. What is he supposed to do — spell out what the problem is and risk getting labelled a pervert? He needs to be able to cite the dress code to keep the topic brief and neutral.

Finally, seeing a lot of flesh in an academic environment is distracting. Whether it’s someone’s buttocks or boobs hanging out, or the horror of white leggings without underwear, I can feel uncomfortable and embarrassed because I don’t know where to look.

And when it’s a young person, a person whose pre-frontal cortex has not finished developing even if everything else has, I feel fearful for that young person, because she or he might be embarrassing themselves and, worse, conveying messages that the child doesn’t even fully understand.

That child needs protection, whether she or he thinks so or not. And in this case, protection comes in the form of a dress code.

Elizabeth Monk is a college instructor and parent of a middle-schooler.

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