A major pet peeve of mine is whenever the topic of modesty is brought up, it usually deteriorates quickly into making lists of what girls should and should not wear. There is little if any mention of how modesty relates to boys and their self-image. The truth is, modesty is an attitude that can greatly improve both girls and boys self esteem. Recently, an experience with my youngest son challenged my perspective on modesty and presented me with a teaching opportunity.

One Saturday morning 

It was one of those days when the boys were annoyed with each other just for breathing the wrong way. “Put a shirt on,” ordered his older brother.  It wasn’t so much the demand to clothe but rather the outraged tone of the accuser that caught my attention.

“Look at my A-MAZ-ING six-pack,” his kid brother shot back.

Marilyn | Parents Aware

I glanced over at the scrawny arms and concave chest being displayed with Popeye-like gusto from my 9-year-old son. Assured that the family gene pool was being well represented, I smiled and said, “Do as your brother says … go put on a shirt.” He trudged off, dismayed that his morning preen had come to an end.

Not two minutes later came the complaint from upstairs, “Stop whistling at me!” This time it was his 13-year-old brother that was shouting foul.

I try to stay out of the minutia of these sibling spats but something caused my mother-ears to tune in again. I heard the offending whistle repeated. It was a genuine ‘Whoot-whoo’ catcall —Good grief!

“Son!” I hollered up the stairs, “Stop whistling at your brother… NOW!” With wounded pride he capitulated a second time.  Satisfied the brawl had been curtailed, I moved on to other tasks. Still, as I went about my morning routine this small exchange between brothers got me thinking about what I was teaching my son about modesty, body image and treating others with respect. There were a few questions rattling around my head:

  • Is it important that I teach my boys to behave modestly while they are young?
  • How can we celebrate the human body without encouraging body-obsessions?
  • How do I teach my children to see everyone (siblings included) as individuals with thoughts, feelings and emotions?

Oh my goodness! … This is a teaching moment!!

A couple hours had passed and everyone had thankfully accepted the idea that we can peaceably share the same house. I sought out the little offender, quietly motioned a side nod in his direction that indicated I wanted to have a chat. He knew immediately that this was an exclusive interview with Mom. Once up on my comfy bed we could talk uninterrupted.  He looked across at me with bright eyes happy and eager if not a little nervous to be in the spotlight of my full attention for the next few minutes.

Modesty as an attitude

I told him I wanted to talk to him about modesty and asked if that would be all right. First, we refreshed our memories on what the word modesty means. We talked about how modesty is about presenting yourself respectfully, wearing the right clothes for the right occasion and not being too revealing. I assured him that there was absolutely nothing wrong with going shirtless at appropriate times like swimming, sleeping, or enjoying a lazy Saturday morning at home. We also talked about how we can behave modestly no matter what attire the circumstances require.

Please understand that I believe it’s very normal, even cute, for kids to discover and celebrate their growing muscles. But in the era of selfies and the endless quest for likes I am trying to help my son recognize the fine line between a healthy appreciation for one’s own body and vanity. A recent survey conducted by Common Sense Media indicates that body image begins to develop at a very young age and that multiple factors —especially parents, some media, and peers— are influential.

The following infographic highlights the results of this research and gives parents practical tips on addressing these concerns:

More than meets the eye

As my son and I continued our chat, we talked about how incredible the human body is and all the special things it can do. We listed some of the fun things he likes to do with his body. He mentioned how much he enjoys baseball, jumping on the trampoline, playing video games, and dancing to his favourite songs.

Then I asked him to solve a riddle, “What is one of the coolest parts of the body that we use everyday but no one can see?” (Confession: I’m not that clever with riddles.) For a clue I told him that this part of his body is where math equations get solved and where he stores all the science information he loves to learn about at school. He answered back enthusiastically,  “—The Brain!”

Personality first

“That’s right,” I said.  “Everything about the human body is special. I always want you to remember that your body is beautiful and strong. You are a very handsome boy. But what makes you really special (tapping his forehead lightly) is what goes on inside your body. How you think, what you feel and all the things you dream up in your imagination are what make you a superstar in my eyes.”

Then we talked about some of the photos or drawings we might see on any given day in advertising and videos. I explained that a lot of these pictures want us to focus just on how people look. “They are designed to make us think ONLY about the body. Plus, they want us to believe that we need to look like and act like the people in the pictures in order to feel special.”  I asked again what makes him a superstar and we talked about all the things that make him unique.

Back to the whistle

“Now that you know how special you are let me explain why it upset your brother when you whistled at him earlier.”  “— I was just whistling!” He interrupted as tears welled up in his eyes. To illustrate the difference I whistled a random tune. The nuance was lost on him.

Grasping at straws I continued, “Have you ever seen a cartoon where there’s a girl walking past and someone whistles at her?”  I do my best catcall. “No,comes a hesitant reply. “How about a rabbit?” I throw out in a last ditch effort. “—Oh, yes!”

Of course! Face palm —my kids are so literal! Thank you Loony Tunes!

“Ok, well that kind of whistle is like a code. It says ‘I like the way you look’. But the thing is it can make the person being whistled at feel really uncomfortable. That’s because it tells them the person whistling is just looking at their body —and doesn’t care about what’s on the inside. So, when you whistled at your brother, he was embarrassed. He just didn’t know how to explain why. Does that make sense?”

Avoiding shame

It was obvious my young son was feeling pretty low about his social blunder. I scrambled to pick up his self-esteem. The last thing I wanted was to make him feel bad during our chat! “Look, just because you whistled at your brother  doesn’t make you a bad person.” I assured him he was a great brother and a caring individual. I told him it’s okay to make mistakes as long as we are always trying our best. “Plus,” I said, “You’re not expected to know everything all at once. That’s why you have parents. Mom and Dad are here to make sure you learn everything you need to  in life to help you grow up healthy and strong and treat others with the respect they deserve.”

Growing pains

It’s a little tough being a pre-teen —maybe even trickier when you’re the youngest of your siblings. You go through day-to-day routines innocently taking in the not-so-innocent world around you. All while trying to discover what the limits are. At age nine you’re bound to push a few buttons and get into some mischief.

In the past I may have let the ‘put a shirt on’ and ‘stop whistling at me’ complaints slip by. But today I am tired of the callousness and vulgarity that permeates media. Nevermind that a certain world leader excuses his own misogynist remarks as locker room banter  The social idiom “Boys will be boys,”  is dangerous and I will not justify it in my home. While raising boys in today’s digital world I don’t think we can ever overstate the importance of a modest attitude, healthy body image and learning to treat everyone as individuals deserving of respect.

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Marilyn Evans lives east of Toronto with her husband and five sons. Concerned with the ease of access to online pornography, she began searching for ways to address this subject with her own children. The lack of support and information available to parents at that time compelled her to begin speaking out publicly on the subject. It's her hope that parentsaware.info will provide families with a resource they can turn to for answers on how to speak openly and honestly with their children. You can follow @parentsaware on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.