The Lady Garden

Tea and Strumpets

Making them conform

Cross posted

The Dom Post Saturday magazine had an angsty article about school uniforms last week (not on-line), with the usual pros and cons. Easier for parents vs reducing individuality, cost vs cost, fewer playground comparisons vs colours that do not suit my child. My children have attended both uniformed and non-uniformed schools, and as a parent, I can see advantages either way. On balance, as a parent, I really don’t care.

But as a citizen, I care deeply. Here’s what one principal said in favour of school uniforms.

“There is no doubt in my mind that a uniform does two things: it creates a sense of belonging and equality in the playground, and creates low-level compliance that says they are part of something bigger than themselves. There is a sense of being part of a community and there are rules.”

Great! Let’s force all those kids into a mould, tell them what they should look like and how they should behave, and turn them into yet more foot soldiers for compliance and obedience and fitting in and doing exactly what everyone else is doing, and subordinating yourself to some great society in the sky.

I have long known that schools are sites for reproducing conformity, but it’s rare to have it stated so explicitly. Yes, I do find school uniforms terribly convenient, and yes, I think that there may well be a reduction in some of the issues around peer pressure if the kids are all wearing the same clothes. But these advantages are as nothing compared to the huge harm of deliberately shaping children into rule-following units.

And as a parent, I care very much about my children being forced to fit into particular patterns of behaviour. No matter how much I encourage my daughters to explore new ideas and new ways of thinking, their schools shout back at them that they must conform, and must fit in, and must be like everyone else. Heaven help the child who is in the least bit different from the norm.

It’s almost enough to make me want to home school.

29 responses to “Making them conform

  1. muerknz September 14, 2011 at 12:10 am

    Although can you imagine a situation where one adult is in charge of thirtyish children who aren’t compliant? It would be at best chaotic, and at worst dangerous.

    • Draco T Bastard (@DracoTBastard) September 14, 2011 at 4:33 pm

      Compliant with what? My second high school didn’t have uniforms (Standards, yes, uniform, no) and the classes were no more disruptive than my first high school that had a strict uniform standards that if you didn’t meet resulted in you getting caned. My third high school had a “uniform” that pretty much amounted to a high standard of dress in specified colours.

      • Muerk September 14, 2011 at 10:34 pm

        I wasn’t really talking about the uniforms, just saying that a reasonable level of compliance is required in a school situation for the whole thing to work and to be safe for kids. You need kids to listen to the teacher when they say “Pat, please don’t run with the scissors.” as an example.

  2. Angelbird72 September 14, 2011 at 1:30 am

    I’m gonna try really hard to be clear and get my tone right (respectful, discussiony, pleasant, etc) but sometimes I don’t do super great with sounding sincere in text, so if anything I say sounds grumpy/sarcastic/angry please know that that is not what I’m going for : ).

    As to the pressure to conform and the role school uniforms play, I’m actually all for that. Of course, I’m talking about “everyone wear a white collared shirt and navy pants, and if you’re wearing a jumper make it red” style uniform, rather than the “skirts one inch below the knees, perfectly polished leather shoes” style uniform.

    Don’t get me wrong, I certainly think kids need to know that they are an individual person, and can be interested in/think/believe/do what they want… within reason. Because I think a certain amount of conformity is good. I want my kids to feel like they belong to something, and have responsibilities to it. I want them to know how to work inside a system as well as outside of it. I want them to rely on people, and people to rely on them. I want them to conform to standards of honesty and integrity and kindness. Plus, I certainly don’t think conforming to one rule, in one way, is going to make a sheep for life.

    I also think that it’s an important lesson for a kid that the clothes don’t make the person. If the smart kid and the tall kid and the sporty kid and the bad kid and the good kid and every other kid they can think of a label for wears the same clothes, maybe clothes aren’t a good way to judge people.

    • Deborah September 14, 2011 at 6:33 am

      Thanks for your comment, Angelbird72. I appreciate there’s several sides to this one. Also many thanks for your very reasoned arguments. I want to hold them up as an exemplar of how to go about disagreeing with someone while still being courteous and personable.

      I’ve had a very snitty commenter turn up at my own place who has managed to make nasty remarks about me, which obviously I don’t like, but I can tolerate them, and nasty remarks about my children, which is completely unacceptable. So it was a real pleasure to come over here and find your comment.

      • Angelbird72 September 14, 2011 at 11:47 am

        Wow, thanks Deborah! It’s super nice to get a bit of a ‘hey, you’re doing alright’ every now and then.

        I kind of consider reason and civility ought to be the default – this person sounds really awful. Targeting someone’s kids is never ever ever ever okay. I really admire people like you and the rest of the Lady Garden who put themselves out there and say the important things and make a place for discussion. I know I’m not strong enough to do that.

  3. tallulahspankhead September 14, 2011 at 7:13 am

    Ugh, she made comments about your girls. Who does that? (Also, your place is all pretty! Yay!)

    As for that principal, I suspect he’s forgetting that most teenagers are non-conformist by nature. Put them in a school uniform, and they’ll figure out a way to not wear it properly. I’m all for developing a sense of community. But can’t you do that by, um, having an actual community, instead of forcing it on kids, by making them wear a certain colour scheme.

    I’m reminded of this quote, from this article (about how the slutty, slutty schoolgirls wear Such Short Skirts:

    “I suspect that, teenagers being teenagers, there will be a new uniform violation that becomes the habit,” New said resignedly. “That was true when I was at school, and I’m sure it was true when my father was at school.”

    • jack September 14, 2011 at 9:36 am

      This aspect is precisely why I’m in favour of school uniforms. I can’t think of a kid at any school I attended who didn’t push the uniform code in some way or another. School uniforms give adolescents something to rebel against, something they can subvert. And it’s a harmless thing for them to push against. Uniforms help ground the adolescent need for rebellion in a battle that, ultimately, doesn’t mean much. Kids can subvert the uniform quietly, or they can actively campaign to have it changed – and possibly feel the satisfaction of winning such a campaign. I’d far rather have my children spending their time surreptitiously rolling their skirts up to shorten them than sneaking off for a quiet ciggy behind the bike sheds.

      • tallulahspankhead September 14, 2011 at 9:46 am

        Hey, I never once shortened my skirt at high school (being of the pinafore wearing persuasion – and already hating my legs at an early age). But I often snuck out for a cigarette. And i turned out OK. (Except for being a dirty smoker. And kind of a slapper.) 😉

    • Angelbird72 September 14, 2011 at 11:52 am

      I guess the thing about developing a sense of community, to my mind, is that it’s hard. And I don’t think a school uniform would hurt that endeavour, and I think maybe it would help, so I’m cool with it on that count. I remember when I was in high school it was the SRC (Student Representative Council) who, with a little supervision, dealt with uniform issues – the community itself created the standards. Which was pretty cool.

  4. Oliver (@viricapnity) September 14, 2011 at 7:23 am

    I have mixed feelings about uniforms; mostly they were just clothes, though I deeply resented being made to wear shorts until I was 15. That I have always believed is a deliberate diminishing tactic as well as a conformity inducing one. The idea being that you get to wear long trousers only when you’re grown-up enough, for a given value of grown-up.

    However, I think the main issue with the principal’s statement is the compliance bit. It is true that we all need to learn to be part of civil society, and something bigger than ourselves, but our civil society is based on consent, not compliance. Making them wear the same clothes as everyone else is perhaps not the ideal way of introducing children to those principles. A certain degree of compliance is necessary for everything to work, but that shouldn’t be the main goal. I suspect the principal’s comments are motivated by thoughts of behaviour control in the playground rather than the totalitarian sense, but it’s not that easy to tell. It is possibly relevant to anyone planning an ad hominem response that I was expelled from secondary school for non-compliance.

  5. Tamara September 14, 2011 at 8:34 am

    Yeah, it’s that concept of “compliance” that is problematic for me. Cooperation and participation are definitely preferable as they involve consent which, as Oliver pointed out, is key.

    I think we should aim for educational institutions where children cooperate and participate because they want to, that’s where real learning will happen.

    As for uniforms, I’m not concerned either way, but based on my experience at a public girls’ school in an affluent area, if you have uniforms for goodness sakes don’t have mufti days. Those were unbearable for me as a child from a lower income family.

  6. Emma September 14, 2011 at 10:02 am

    My main problem with the uniform argument is that none of the arguments on the “uniform” side actually stack up. It’s NOT easier for parents to have to have the same clothes clean and dry all the time. My kids hardly ever lost their own clothes, but school sweatshirts? Dozens. The compliance it teaches is “don’t question rules even when they’re stupid and pointless”, which is not, actually, good for a society. And the thing with teenagers is that if you give them stupid pointless rules and force their obedience, they see ALL your rules as stupid and pointless.

    And, most red-herringly, allowing kids to wear their own clothes to school does NOT cause rampant clothing one-up-personship. I went to a school with no uniform in 7th form. My kids go to a high school with no uniform. It’s not like having a mufti day at a uniform school, where everyone is desperate to make some kind of mark, it’s getting up in the morning and putting your clothes on. Just like they will be when they start going to work.

    • Hugh September 14, 2011 at 12:03 pm

      Absolutely. Of all the pro-uniform arguments, the one about one-up-personship has always got to me the most. It’s a total false dichotomy and isn’t at all born out by schools that don’t have uniforms.

    • Angelbird72 September 14, 2011 at 12:08 pm

      I guess I don’t know about the parents thing, I haven’t tried that out yet. And I know my Mum sewed (well ironed) little labels with my name on them into every item of school uniform I had until high school, so any time I lost a jumper it found its way home : P.

      I don’t see uniforms teaching kids not to question rules. While I was at school the Student Representative Council had the uniform guide changed after students took action and argued their case (for girls to be able to wear slacks and for jumpers to be expanded to other sorts of top-half warm-giving items like cardigans for days when it was cold, but not that cold). They did question the rules, and they had the power to improve them. Seems a pretty good lesson for society to me.

      I suppose I never saw the thing about constantly competing over clothes was ever going to happen either, but it just, to my mind, opens up one more avenue for bullying, self-consciousness, and clique-y-ness. Plus, plenty of jobs that plenty of kids have will involve getting up in the morning and putting on their uniform, and being able to maintain one’s identity without the aid of clothing is an important skill to learn, I think.

    • Msconduct September 14, 2011 at 1:57 pm

      And, most red-herringly, allowing kids to wear their own clothes to school does NOT cause rampant clothing one-up-personship.

      This may be your experience, but it is not universal. In my single parent family money was always an issue, and my mother made most of my clothes when I was at primary school whereas other kids wore branded clothing from shops. I still remember a particular incident of girls snickering at my non-shop clothing – and that was more than thirty years ago. (Nowadays I would be thrilled to wear handmade clothes, but then it was just a sign of lack of money. And it was far from a fancy school, either. By branded I mean Levis, not Versace.) It was a relief to me to get to secondary school where everyone wore the same thing.

      • tallulahspankhead September 14, 2011 at 2:10 pm

        Having gone to a single-sex boarding school, my experience was much the same. We wore a uniform, so I understand Emma’s point about it not being like mufti days. But if the boarding house was any indication, teenage girls with money are pretty horrible to teenage girls without it. I can remember begging my grandmother to buy me a bag from Esprit, in the hope that that would help me fit in. It didn’t. And while I wouldn’t say having the “right clothes” in later years _did_ make me fit in, it certainly eased the path. I dread to think what it would have been like without a uniform during the day.

        Having said that, it’s also worth remembering that teenagers who aren’t made to wear a uniform tend to adopt one anyway. Whether it is all black and emo music, or pretty tshirts and shiny ponytails, kids are pretty good, often, at forming their own communities.

      • Hugh September 14, 2011 at 2:34 pm

        If kids are bullied for what they wear, I think the best way to address that is to introduce anti-bullying measures, not to restrict what they wear.

      • Emma September 14, 2011 at 3:04 pm

        _Not necessarily_. Because if that was the “cause”, it would always happen. I was from a poor family, and I was bullied, and it was nothing to do with my clothing. I’m not, of course, saying it doesn’t happen, just that it doesn’t ALWAYS happen, nor does it have to. It doesn’t happen at my kids’ school because of the attitude of the school, which very much encourages individuality. And yes, there are a lot of trench-coats, and nerd t-shirts, and leggings with four different tops, but so many of the kids don’t dress like their “tribe” (goths, emos, musos, gamers, etc) that they don’t get shit for it. I really do think it’s a lot more to do with the culture of the school than the fundamental inescapable nature of teenagers.

      • Isabel September 14, 2011 at 4:52 pm

        Even at schools with uniforms I remember being very aware of who had multiple brand-new uniform items and who was still going to be wearing Monday’s yoghurt stain on Friday.

        I have primary school aged boys so we not in the high-pressure demographic about clothes but I’m not seeing very much pressure about how to dress at their uniformless school and the sense of community there is very strong not because they all look the same but because they share (frequently reinforced) values.

  7. Hugh September 14, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    “They did question the rules, and they had the power to improve them.”

    They didn’t question the fact that they had to wear a uniform, though, they just questioned what type of uniform they had to wear. Just because their conformity wasn’t total doesn’t mean conformity isn’t being exercised. Teaching kids “you can question the way this universal standard is being applied, but only if you accept that the universal standard is valid and phrase your question in the form of a request to the authorities to exercise their personal discretion” is not a good lesson.

    When I was a high schooler we had a campaign to allow female students to wear trousers if they wanted to. (Boys weren’t allowed to wear skirts, though) I supported it, but I supported abolition of uniforms too.

    • Moz September 14, 2011 at 4:30 pm

      My school introduced awful green corduroy trousers for mgirls while I was there. They made the pinafore look flattering, unless you happened to be just the right shape. I beleive they’ve fixed that a bit now. But getting boys into kilts completely failed at every level except the small group of rebel boys who were willing to do it. “’tis nae a skirt, ’tis a kilt ye sassanach” did not cut it as an argument. Even on a mufti day.

      I preferred the uniform when I was at school, it just made things simpler. Same as I prefer either a low dress standard or suits today. If I can’t wear my usual T shirt and cargo pants I’d rather wear a similar no-thought costume (that costs about the same at the local op shop). Op shops are the big reason for not having uniforms IMO.

    • Oliver (@viricapnity) September 14, 2011 at 6:17 pm

      I wore a skirt to (my second) school a couple of times because I wasn’t allowed to. Very sensibly, I was left alone to do it. Clear difference in disciplinary approach between the first (expensive, single sex, private) and the second (low-decile, co-ed, public). Not sure if it’s a general thing.

      It seems to me there are two different types of rebellion being identified. The Youth episode of Hindsight (excellent programme) has someone putting that very clearly. Along the lines of, ‘we just broke the rules to rebel, today they question the rules themselves’. The first is pretty much officially encouraged, while the second is an evil crime against nature, when you’re a child (or at least, young enough that people don’t take you seriously). Then when you reach whatever someone regards as adulthood, it changes round, and you have to follow the rules, but it’s ok, even laudable, to question and try to change them.

  8. Jackie Clark September 14, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    What an interesting discussion! I went to a uniformed primary school, when I started school, then a non uniformed primary school, then went to uniformed schools till my 7th form year, when I went to a public school, where only 7th formers wore mufti. So the gamut, I guess you could say. When I was younger, I don’t remember the ordinary clothes/uniform thing worried me at all. Even at Marsden,as a boarder, it didn’t worry me, particularly. I do remember mufti being an exciting thing, though. And there was never any pressure from other girls, but then I guess everyone at the school was from a similar demographic and back then, we all wore pretty much similar clothes anyway. The only girl at school who was Maori, we thought was terribly daring, because she wore feather earrings. When I got to the 7th form though, and had returned home to live, I did think an awful lot more about what I was going to wear everyday. I thought I was very stylish in my candy striped seersucker cotton pants and my collar up shirts. Maybe it was because for the first time, as a teen anyway, I was at school with boys? And going to a great number of parties where there was boys? As to compliance, it’s a load of bollocks. Kids in uniform act exactly like kids out of uniform, I would have said. But that’s just my experience.

    • Max Rose September 14, 2011 at 8:33 pm

      “Kids in uniform act exactly like kids out of uniform, I would have said. But that’s just my experience.”

      Could be. But there’s some interesting literature about uniforms or costumes and the power of deindividuation:

      “Deindividuation is usually promoted in any organization where it is important to reduce inhibition and get you to do things you might not do alone. Soldiers and police don uniforms, warriors wear paint, football players wear jerseys, gangs have colors and dances and rituals. Businesses spend millions on team building in an effort to instill a deindividualized sense of worth. Parties thrown by fraternities and sororities have more potential to get out of hand than a party where no one feels absorbed by a group or protected by its norms.

      Deindividuation takes away your inhibitions as well as your sense of self and fear of accountability, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The same force which brings otherwise rational people to loot and vandalize and invade Poland can also lead to prosocial behaviors. If you are surrounded by positive cues, deindividuation could lead you to work harder in an exercise class, or pitch in at a homeless shelter, or help build a house. People who forget their sense of self and work together to save a life or search for a missing child show deindividuation is a neutral force of the human will.”

      • Jackie Clark September 15, 2011 at 6:25 pm

        That is interesting, Max. In my experience, anyway, and as others have said, kids who have to wear uniforms to school find their own ways of individuating (is that the word?). Whether it be the way they wear their hair or slouchy socks or whatever. I think adult uniforms/costumes are a very different thing altogether. And as the article says, not necessarily a bad thing, and I know for adults wearing uniforms (police, the military, paramedics) their uniforms can give sense of pride at times. And whilst I am sure that for some kids, wearing school uniforms at special occasions or whatever, may give rise to some sense of that togetherness, I never experienced it that way. Although, neither did I experience uniforms in a bad way, either.

        • Max Rose September 16, 2011 at 1:34 pm

          I think there were times when it went both ways. For instance, when we were dragged out to support the school rugby team (on pain of detention) the uniforms definitely seemed to enforce that deindividuated “school spirit”. But yes, many of the boys used to find ways to subvert and individualise their uniforms, whether by scrawling the names of punk bands, motorbikes or tractors (for the hostel boys) on their bags, or in my case by leaving my socks down and wearing a “Halt All Racist Tours” badge. The former got me the cane; the latter got me much worse.

          But many boys, perhaps the majority, seemed quite happy to stick with the uniform. I think they were the ones who ended up scraping through a B Bursary, getting a B.Com. and taking over their fathers’ companies.

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