Do uniforms help us teach our values?


ICS needs to set many policies and procedures before we open. I think mostly about curriculum, staffing, and real estate. But food, transportation, and yes, even uniforms, also require decisions. Teaching our children how to dress for different occasions is one of many lessons we give. And before our kids demand control of the process, dressing them in cute outfits is one of the special pleasures parents enjoy.

But in our consumer-driven society, clothes get complicated. Sometimes faster than we realize.

When his daughter’s outfit crossed the line from sweet to skimpy, author Bruce Feiler was surprised: She’s eight, like my youngest.  Feiler spoke with New York psychoanalyst Joyce McFadden who is concerned that “girls today are unprepared to withstand sophisticated efforts by corporations that prey on girls’ desire to be popular.” Compounding matters, she says, “As parents, we’re so afraid to talk honestly with our daughters about their sexuality that we end up leaving them out in the cold.”

The Case For Uniforms


One way schools could support parents more successfully is by instituting school uniform policies.  Apart from addressing sexualization, which falls unfairly disproportionately on girls, uniforms also have the benefit of damping down income-based distinctions, of which children quickly become aware. Sports uniforms help kids on the court or field, encourage them to get their ‘game face’ on, and similarly school uniforms send the message that we’re at school for a specific purpose too. To learn, not to compete for attention on our looks.

Longtime Brooklyn educator Fela Barclift has seen generations of children pass through her Little Sun People School on Fulton Street.  She worries about giving them a sense of cultural identity as African Americans, she worries about teaching them to get along with their classmates, she worries about all the things a good school leader should.

But, she told me, her biggest worry is how her children will navigate the onslaught of commercial messages telling them who they need to be.  Every bus, phone booth, subway ride or TV show is filled with messages about how, by purchasing this bag, or those pair of sneakers, or that pair of jeans, her kids will draw that much closer to achieving their dream. She’s concerned about how powerfully these messages distract them from the larger values she and her parents are trying to teach

Teaching our values

Teaching about how the world is interconnected is another fundamental part of our job at ICS. When more than 1,000 workers die in a factory collapse in Asia, this matters even in Bed-Stuy. Knowing where Bangladesh is, and why people there live the way they do is important to building global understanding.

But as one ICS parent shared with me via FB, each time we purchase clothes made in countries where worker protections are non-existent, we miss the chance to teach that lesson. With three kids, and only one who can take hand-me-downs, I’m guilty of this all the time.

So this weekend I took my son, complaining that his socks are once again too small, to American Apparel.  Founder Dov Charney is not a perfect role model, but central to his company’s approach is their commitment to manufacturing in Los Angeles and paying living wages.  We picked up three pairs of socks for $10 versus the six pairs we probably could have gotten for the same price elsewhere.  Tradeoffs - but isn’t weighing them another way of critical thinking?

American Apparel clothes have no logos, and come in a range of kids sizes and standard colors.  Which got the wheels turning in my head. Could we make a deal with them for pants and shirts, and ask Brooklyn Industries to make our knapsacks and school bags?

International Charter School: Can we give our students thoughtful values to live by? From the moment they dress in the morning?

What are your thoughts?