“Yes, I believe in school uniforms.”
Rebecca Cuneo Keenan, mom of three
I didn’t know our school was going to have uniforms when I first registered my son for kindergarten. Our school board was only just introducing them for elementary kids, and it caught me by surprise. I was kind of annoyed, to tell you the truth. I already had a full wardrobe of size-four boys clothes and now I had to buy another set? Plus, was I seriously supposed to keep a school-aged boy in clean, white shirts on top of that? Hardly.
But it turns out that I love the uniforms. Our guidelines are fairly loose: plain white or navy top with any navy bottoms, excluding jeans. This means I can stock up on approved tees and pants for my son from any store, and then I don’t have to think about it again all year.
My son doesn’t really care what he wears. His five-year-old sister, however, cares enough for both of them. That’s the real test for how uniforms work for our family. Before the dress code was introduced our mornings used to go something like this: “I won’t wear that sweater—I want the other one! Everybody else is wearing dresses. Why do I have to wear this stupid skirt?” Sound familiar? This back and forth would completely paralyze our get-out-the-door routine. Fortunately with the uniforms, her choices are limited. But there’s still more than enough room for personal expression, too, since jackets, backpacks and headbands are fair game.
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I wore a uniform in high school myself, and I remember feeling relieved I didn’t have to come up with different outfits every day. Money was tight, so a shopping spree at the United Colors of Benetton wasn’t in the cards. And now as a parent, a dress code definitely helps me save cash. Most of my kids’ after-school and weekend clothes are actually tattered hand-me-downs from friends and family or stained T-shirts that are just fine for bumming around the house. This keeps the uniform attire in good condition, so when my two-year-old starts school we’ll have to buy even less. From streamlined mornings to financial savings, uniforms make my life easier. In my books, anything that simplifies life automatically goes in the win column.
“No, I don’t believe in school uniforms.”
Doris Montanera, mom of two
The first year our elementary school adopted a dress code, my oldest daughter, a good student who rarely got into trouble, was sent to the principal’s office. Her offence? Wearing the wrong shirt. Her grade-five teacher objected to its wide neckline because it showed off too much skin despite the fact that she was sporting a chunky-strap tank top underneath to cover her shoulders. Apparently the top didn’t conform to the school’s modesty rules. But she was wearing it because I couldn’t find anything else that satisfied the dress code of navy bottoms and a white or navy shirt, and that worked for my in-between-sizes 11-year-old. Honestly, if the uniforms hadn’t been mandated across the entire district, I would have switched schools, because instead of learning math that day, my kid was sitting in the office.
Dressing my girls, now 14 and 10, feels like an endless chess match: I’m constantly on the lookout for the right colours in the right sizes and styles, but I also want to find clothes that my children will be happy wearing. Plotting to maximize their wardrobe is a full-time job—remembering to save their navy tops for when their lunch includes red sauce or strawberries is only one example. Part of me believes uniforms are a conspiracy against parents by detergent companies and school boards.
Pro-dress-code parents make a lot of claims: Uniforms improve academic achievement, reduce peer pressure and promote discipline, safety and accountability. But none of them convince me that kids aren’t better off choosing their own outfits. Take peer pressure, for instance: Any mom, dad or teacher will tell you that kids still have to contend with trends (at our school it’s all about smartphones and rainbow bracelets). And how can you expect your child to focus in class when she’s wearing something that makes her feel self-conscious? It’s not just about fashion. There’s a confidence that comes from wearing an outfit that suits you . School administrators have to do more than introduce a dress-code policy to affect change. When we simply try to dress the problem differently, we lose an opportunity to educate our kids about morals and not judging others by how they look on the outside.
A version of this article appeared in our 2014 September issue, with the headline “Do you believe in school uniforms?,” p.130.