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Let’s encourage our children to be street smart

Jamie Tobias Neely The Spokesman-Review

I was once a younger, hipper parent.

Choose your battles, I believed. Clothing wasn’t the hill I wanted to die on.

Why fight over purple hair or baggy jeans when there were so many more important issues?

But either I’m growing more conservative, or children’s clothing has grown more revealing. Or both.

Whatever the reason, I now believe children should dress as children and teens should learn the benefits of a word I’m loathe to write — modesty.

It’s so Victorian. So Eisenhower era. So repressed and uncool and un-baby boomer like.

But there it is.

Now, in a time when hip young parents are reaching back to the Victorian era for baby names — if you haven’t met a Lily or an Agnes lately, you’re probably about to — they’ll do well to reach back for some Victorian virtues as well — modesty, humility, restraint.

Choose your battles. It was an easy mantra once.

But the world has changed, and so have my perceptions.

In recent weeks, writers of letters to the editor have debated whether provocative clothing styles make our children more vulnerable to sex offenders.

“We need to stop letting them wear tight jeans that say ‘cute’ on the rear end, and they certainly don’t need to be wearing belly shirts,” wrote Deer Park’s Rachel J. Brown.

“Clothes have nothing to do with sexual predation,” argues Mary Jean Tranfo of Coeur d’Alene. “They might send a message, but it’s not: ‘Come and dominate me, scare me, control me, humiliate me, then take away every single scrap of dignity I have by violating my most private parts.’ “

In the past, I’d have sided solely with Tranfo. Sexual assault often has power and domination as a goal, and, as she points out, victims can range from “a baby in diapers to an elderly or disabled woman in the same condition.”

But at the same time, lately I’ve been interviewing sex offenders and the therapists who treat them.

None of them mentioned clothing choices of the victims. They all focused on the deranged thoughts of the offenders.

But these thoughts were so preposterous, so clearly bent out of any relationship to reality, that I came away astonished at the ability of human beings to delude themselves.

If an offender can convince himself that a 5-year-old performing somersaults in the park wants to have sex with him, he’s likely capable of smaller leaps of logic. What’s an offender with an interest in teen girls to make of belly shirts and low-slung jeans? And for that matter, what’s a more garden-variety lout at the school dance likely to think?

Many sex offenders are impulsive and immature, attention-deficit disordered or simply very young. Their thoughts don’t follow logical patterns.

I learned that Washington state alone convicts an average of 1,000 felony sex offenders every year. It can’t possibly afford to keep them all locked up and most of them wind up back in our neighborhoods.

So how can we not do everything possible to keep our children safe?

Cory Jewell Jensen and Steve Jensen of the Center for Behavioral Intervention in Oregon have written a guide called “Understanding and Protecting Your Children From Child Molesters and Predators.” It’s posted on They give excellent guidance for talking to children about sexual abuse.

Here are their safety tips: Trust your instincts. Don’t let young male children go into a men’s public restroom alone. Be cautious about who you allow to baby-sit or spend time alone with your children. Get to know the people and homes where your children play. Periodically check on your children, especially when they are playing with other kids in your home. Don’t let them walk or ride their bike to school or a friend’s house alone. Know your neighbors. Supervise Internet activities closely. Develop the kind of relationship that encourages your child to come to you for help.

(Check out their information packet at tows_2002/tows_past_20020426.jhtml.)

It can’t be said often enough: Sexual abuse is NEVER, NEVER, NEVER the victim’s fault. Yet first on the Jensen’s list is “Trust your instincts.” And these days my instincts are telling me that dressing our kids in age-appropriate clothing can’t hurt.

After all, children need lessons on being street smart. They need to grow into adults wise enough to avoid unnecessary risk — not to venture alone down dark alleys at 2 a.m., not to drive down the freeway with their car door wide open, not to pick up hitchhikers resembling Kevin Bacon.

In the meantime, the only real fashion statement I’d like their clothing to make is “I’m a kid. Don’t mess with my childhood.”

Fortunately, designers and retailers seem more willing this fall to help parents out.

Where it once encouraged teens to equate feminism with provocative clothing — a truly ridiculous leap of logic — Madison Avenue’s now selling longer skirts, more jackets and tops that feature fabric, not flesh, at the midriff. What the teens will wear, children will want to imitate.

Washington Post fashion writer Robin Givhan calls this look “prim.”

I prefer to think of it as smart.

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