08/20/2013 12:44 EDT | Updated 10/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Back To School Clothes: Set Ground Rules Early For Age-Appropriate Dress

TORONTO - Before her daughter leaves the house, Elena Grant has established a rule to help ensure her teen's ensemble isn't too revealing.

"She's got to lift up her arms, and if her shirt comes up above her belly, she's got to put a cami(sole) on or tank top."

As owner of online tween clothing boutique — which also operates a retail store in North Vancouver — Grant makes a concerted effort to carry age-appropriate clothes and to offer alternatives to more suggestive or grownup offerings targeted to the younger demographic.

"It has to be on trend. The girls want to be in style," said Grant, mother to 15-year-old daughter Sofia and sons Josh and Ben.

"So what the challenge is is in finding pieces that have the look of what's current but that's cut appropriately for their bodies and nothing that's going to be too sophisticated or too sexy. We don't want 12-year-olds looking sexy."

While the '80s, off-the-shoulder look is in vogue, Grant said she aims to stay away from such selections as much as possible. Instead, she'll try to find styles that don't completely bare the shoulder and encourage girls to wear tank tops with wider straps underneath to "get a bit of the look without going overboard."

Grant said she has engaged in a lot of open communication with Sofia on the subject of fashion choices and stressed the importance of "what you say to the world by what you wear."

"Even though you think the pair of cute little cutoff jean shorts are trendy and in style and comfortable, what are you saying to the world when half your butt is showing or your bra strap is showing or your belly is showing?

"Right or wrong, people make a judgement on what you are based on what you wear, especially a first impression. Now that she's older, she understands it a lot more."

Yet it's not just a matter of steering kids away from body-hugging, skin-baring or suggestive attire that raises potential headaches for parents, but dealing with items marketed toward youngsters which some critics say perpetuate antiquated gender or sexist stereotypes.

In 2011, a girl's shirt bearing the slogan "I'm too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me" was pulled by J.C. Penney after a fierce backlash, and the retailer issued an apology. And earlier this month, The Children's Place apologized in a Facebook post to those offended by its "My Best Subjects" shirt, which was also removed from sale.

The girl's tee featured checkmarks next to the words "shopping," "music" and "dancing" among the list of subjects. Meanwhile, the corresponding box next to "math" was left unchecked with the slogan "Well, Nobody's Perfect" scrawled underneath in brackets.

Toronto-based family therapist Jennifer Kolari said parents may be inclined to make certain compromises with their kids over fashion choices, such as a pair of earrings they may want to wear or sporting a shirt over an outfit to make it more appropriate. She said it's still "perfectly OK" to tell their child the clothing they covet is unsuitable or too advanced for their age.

"I don't think we're doing a good enough job as parents protecting childhood. It's fast. It's fleeting," said Kolari, a mother of three and founder of Connected Parenting.

"Kids are already doing teenage things and acting like teenagers at nine, which is heartbreaking, because you're still a little kid at nine. You should be barefoot running in your shorts getting muddy and having a great time at nine."

Kolari acknowledged that once youngsters reach their later teen years, parents can't engage in battles over clothing in the same manner as they did when children were younger. This is why it's important to engage in a dialogue with kids early on about the symbolism of clothing and the image or look they want to portray through their dress, she noted.

"The closer you are to your teenager, the more they're going to value your opinion," she said. "Knowing that it upsets you to wear something might be the reason that they say: 'OK, I'll put a sweater on.'

"The more you start these patterns now, the more you're going to raise mindful, independent thinkers who go: 'You know what? I don't have to wear that just because everyone else does.'"

Nancy Dennis, trend director for children's wear for Sears Canada, said it can be tough to encourage younger children to wear age-appropriate apparel when they see fashions adorning the racks that older kids are wearing.

She suggested drawing on style elements of a favourite tween or teen role model that kids can incorporate into their outfits, like sunglasses, studded boots or a graphic T-shirt.

"That's a way of adding a bit of Hollywood or rock star (style) without incurring a huge amount of expense."

Dennis said another way to emulate the star look without being provocative or inappropriate is allowing kids to show their colourful side. Pop star Katy Perry and tween phenom Willow Smith are known for stepping out sporting eye-popping hues, and kids can easily follow suit by mixing and matching their favourite colours or prints.

"I think fashion is an expression of art and individuality and creativity," she said. "If they want to wear two colours that clash, I say go for it. As long as it's warm, it's age-appropriate and they feel good in it, I think that's great."



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