Instilling the virtue of modesty in children, Part 1: Matters of dress

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Modesty protects the intimate center of the person. It means refusing to unveil what should remain hidden. . . . Modesty protects the mystery of persons and their love. . . . Teaching modesty to children and adolescents means awakening in them respect for the human person.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2521-2522 and 2524)

As with other virtues we cultivate in our children, modesty is something best taught by practicing it. My mother, a registered nurse, often quoted from Saint Paul: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, Who is in you, Whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6: 1920).

I wasn’t familiar with the theology of the body back then, but when I learned about it, I knew I had understood its basic principles all along because of these two verses. The Holy Trinity is expressed in our nature as human beings. We’re comprised of three distinct components—body, mind, and spirit—and yet they are inseparable. This holy mystery can be taught to children at all stages, using age-appropriate language.

My seven-year-old daughter, now preparing for her First Communion, is at the perfect age for grasping this concept. She has been raised in a household whose members all respect their bodies through healthy behaviors and modest dressing. She understands that we dress differently for sports, church, and school. When we shop for clothing, we talk about characteristics such as its color, length, and style.

The principal at my 12-year-old son’s junior high school enforces a conservative dress code, stressing that children are to dress appropriately for the learning environment. I hope that, being raised in a home full of young ladies who respect their bodies, he will continue to respect his own body and those of the young ladies he meets. As Blessed John Paul II conveys in his book Love and Responsibility, modesty in a woman helps a man to love her for who she is—rather than be infatuated simply by her looks.

If it’s necessary to explain to your children what’s wrong with someone else’s apparel, it’s important to do so without judging the other person as a person. This can be achieved by also saying something positive, as in this example: “Daisy is a nice girl, but I wish she wouldn’t wear such tight clothing.”

Teaching our children about modesty as a way to be respectful of self and others is much easier if it starts at a young age. Going shopping with my teen daughters, ages 14 and 16, can be great fun because our standards were set early. Usually, I’m pleased with their choices. Occasionally, they protest, “But everyone else is wearing that.” And my standard response is “But you’re not everyone else, dear; you’re my daughter.”

Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller is a Catholic write-at-home mother raising her four children with her husband, Kevin, on Long Island, New York. She writes the online column Long Island Motherhood Examiner and blogs about family topics at The Divine Gift of Motherhood. This article was published as the Pro-Life Parenting column in the January-February 2014 issue of Celebrate Life Magazine. Look for “Instilling the Virtue of Modesty in Children, Part II: Behavior” in the next issue.