One of the struggles we have as parents in forming our children, especially our boys, is the ongoing battle over clothing—specifically formal clothing.
For some reason known only to the cosmos, most boys have little interest in changing their clothes, washing their clothes, trying on new clothes, shopping for clothes, let alone actually dressing up in a dress shirt, tie, and suit jacket for Holy Mass or any other formal occasion.
My boys will wear socks with huge holes in them; they prefer to not put on pyjamas because then they don't have to take the time to put on clothes in the morning. The same undergarments would be worn for weeks, their ties would be used as handcuffs, and their dress shoes would be used for soccer if we as parents didn’t regulate and train them not to do so.
Every Sunday as we get ready for Mass, we leave the battle to dress the boys till the ½ hour before we need to leave for Church, because if we don’t, they will inevitably end up wrestling in their Mass clothes outside on the grass. As it is, by the time we get them into the van, their shirts are untucked, their ties are askew, and their shoelaces are undone.
First off, it teaches them that they are not the centre of the universe. That there is an order and structure to life and expectations therein. That the world doesn’t revolve around their likes and dislikes. It teaches them that dressing up, whether for another person, an event, or a specific place is a show of respect.
I don’t have the answer to why boys resist dressing up so much. Perhaps it is too restraining on their ability to run, jump, and play. Perhaps the act of putting on the clothing takes too much time out of their play time. Or perhaps they like the smell of their dirty clothing (or don’t even notice it anymore).
What I do know is that young boys need discipline and dressing up nice for Holy Mass is one part of that formative process.
It is important for our young boys to realize that there are times and places that are sacred and thus, there is a different element of decorum that is expected from them. In the sanctuary, it is expected that they will sit respectfully and reverently. It is expected that they will kneel at the consecration of the bread and wine. It is expected that in this act of worship before the King of kings, that they dress for the occasion.
What does this teach them?
First off, it teaches them that they are not the centre of the universe. That there is an order and structure to life and expectations therein. That the world doesn’t revolve around their likes and dislikes. It teaches them that dressing up, whether for another person, an event, or a specific place is a show of respect. And showing respect is showing honour to those people and places and communicating to them that they are worthy and deserving of additional effort or sacrifice on our part. After all, the act of showing honour is, as Aquinas teaches us, a civic virtue.
It also teaches our boys that even as young boys, they have certain obligations (such as giving worship to the Creator) and that these need to be completed in specific and worthy ways.
It seems that in our present western culture there are either fewer and fewer opportunities to dress up or else we, as an egalitarian society, have just diminished them. There are weddings and funerals to be sure, but we’ve observed that even at these events people have become more lax with what constitutes formal-wear.
In our family, on the other hand, we place great value on this. We even have our boys dress up when guests come over and, more importantly, when we visit others. Just the other day I had a debate with my 11 year old son about why he can’t wear sweatpants everywhere. We went through the hierarchy of clothing and put sweatpants at the bottom, for obvious reasons.
Many men no longer dress up for Mass, fewer wear a tie. We make a point of looking our best at Mass, and when we arrive, our children remove their outerwear because we are not there to rush but to linger; we are there to worship the King of kings!
And while traditionally women have been known to enjoy dressing nicely, what’s “nice” has also taken on a new meaning. Many women no longer dress up to go to Mass either, let alone to go out in public, which is why my good wife spends a lot of time seeking out beautiful dresses for our daughters to wear for these occasions (and the nice dresses are becoming harder to find, too.)
And all the while I say this, I just want to refine my stance by adding that “formal” need not equal expensive, and that it is about dressing respectfully even if it is simply. And yes, of course it is better to come to Mass in less-than-ideal attire rather than not to come at all, particularly if you've had a rough morning getting everyone out the door, but we need to make a genuine effort to improve if this is the rule rather than the exception.
Perhaps this is all because we’ve bought into this egalitarian notion that everyone needs to be the same and that the differentiation brought on through uniforms and dress is to be diminished or shunned.
Perhaps we’ve become lazy.
Or perhaps we’ve lost the sense of the sacred.
Be that as it may, we as a family will fight the tide. My boys will wear ties to Mass and we will continue to purchase new dress shoes even if they are wrecked from playing tag afterwards.
The funny thing is, we may discipline our boys to dress formally on certain occasions, but I don’t think it will ever change the fact that as soon as we get home, all the dress clothes are off and play clothes come on.
Next battle: dressing up for Sunday family dinner!
Kenton E. Biffert
Kenton is a writer and speaker, and works at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College as an adjunct professor and the Dean of Students. Together with his wife, they homeschool their 8 children, explore the wilds of Ontario in the canoe, and read voraciously. To learn more about the art of fatherhood, visit Kenton's personal page.