Sometimes I think my youngest daughter is karma sent to repay me for all the times my parents said no and I thought, “Challenge accepted.” To me, no was a suggestion and rules were obstacles to circumvent, and my 8-year-old daughter inherited this “I’ll do what I want” attitude.
So when this daughter came to me this week to ask if she could wear a bikini to the pool, I immediately felt this was a pivotal moment. First, I kicked myself for not throwing out the small halter top that came as an option with her tankini bathing suit. Then, I thought hard about the two directions this conversation (and my relationship with her) could go.
On one hand, I could say no. We don’t wear bikinis. I could set a family rule and blissfully believe that just because it’s a rule, it’s going to be followed.
Or I could learn from my years and years of changing into tank tops on the bus to school and acknowledge that modesty is not something that can be enforced, and, really, neither are rules at some point.
Instead, I asked my daughter why she wanted to wear a bikini. She kind of shrugged and responded, “I don’t know. I kind of want to see what it feels like.” She’s only 8, but I already know that with this particular child, there will be lots of doing something for the sake of seeing what it feels like.
I’m not going to change her personality by banning bikinis. So, instead, we talked about modesty. I’ve always believed modesty is an internal concept, one that can’t be imposed on someone else. Yes, dress codes can be enforced, but modesty is about how we respect our bodies, how we view ourselves and how we want the world to see us.
We talked about all those things, and, in the end, my daughter said she would still like to at least try a bikini.
We also talked about how I, as the mother, need to feel good about the kind of message we send to the world by the way my family dresses, and I feel good about young kids wearing one-piece or tankini suits.
So, we came up with a compromise of sorts. She could “try out” the bikini at my sister’s pool when we are swimming with family. She also brought along a backup one-piece just in case she felt uncomfortable. At public pools or at my discretion, however, she will continue to wear more conservative suits.
That deal may change, of course, as she gets older, and honestly, I hated seeing her in that bikini. But I knew that working together on a solution would go a long way in our relationship rather than drawing a nonnegotiable hard line over something so innocent.
I also wanted the outcome to be good for my daughter because she handled the situation exactly as I hope she always will. She came to me and told me how she felt. She didn’t whine or get upset when I didn’t say yes automatically. She talked it through with me, thoughtfully considered her options and her feelings on modesty, and then came to a mature decision. And when we went to the public pool the next time, she had no problem putting her regular bathing suit back on.
It would be naïve to think my discussions with my daughter will always be like this. At some point, there will surely be slammed doors, rolled eyes and many, many variations of “That’s not fair!” because sometimes the answer will be an absolute no. But if the answer is always no, she’ll eventually stop asking. Besides, a long list of denials doesn’t mean I’m actually going to stop her from wearing or trying or doing all the things I forbid. It just means she’ll cut me out of the conversation and I won’t know what she’s doing or desiring.
There will be many heavier conversations with my daughter, many that will have much higher stakes than a little midriff exposure. Honestly, who knows if I did the right thing, but for my daughter’s personality (and mine), I hope this conversation will be a defining moment for a relationship where she can always come to me— unashamed and unafraid — when she wants “to see what it feels like.”