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Avoid the mom vs. stepmom wardrobe wars


Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My stepdaughter lives with my husband and me pretty much most of the time, seeing her mother a few weekends a month and occasionally longer visits when school is out. Our differences in parenting are obvious at every step.

Since we make most of the decisions, it hasn’t been a huge problem, but the little details are starting to cause a stink now. For instance, her mother thinks makeup, midriff-baring shirts and high-heeled shoes are appropriate for a 7-year-old, while I get nervous when her shorts are too short.

The mother’s decisions seem beyond wrong to me, but I’m sure she thinks I’m some crazy conservative who’s not letting our daughter express herself. I know you have boys, but have you seen some of the stuff they sell for little girls? My husband tends to agree with me but will point out when I’m making a bigger deal than he thinks I should. Before I was on the scene, he drew lines with his ex-wife about makeup and hair color (?!?!) but never saw too much in the clothes.

I’m wondering if I’m putting some of my own self-esteem and feminist issues onto my daughter and thinking too much about her shorts. Can we refer to something to help her mother understand? I don’t think her mother dresses appropriately (yes, I hear how judgmental that is) and, yes, I look like I stepped out of a J. Crew world with a slight chance of Polo.

Thank Heaven for Little Girls

I agree that a lot of girls’ clothing is disturbingly sexualized.

There’s another interest here that you must take seriously, though: not undermining the mother. When a child’s two homes have different rules, there are times when one household has to take a stand against another — but I don’t think short-shorts are among the battles worth choosing. You can instead be your modest self, send your message of modesty through your various choices in life, and save your objections to her most over-the-top clothes.

If she wants to play with makeup, then treat that as a natural impulse; if she wants to wear it to school, then you can say, no, not in this house till you’re XX years old — “and you’re prettiest just as you are, why cover that up?”

Because there’s a tug of war emerging, consider talking to a good family therapist. Establish a relationship where you can set up a time to talk whenever things like this crop up.

Still — as primary caregivers, you will be the primary influence. If you press for more influence, particularly by undermining her mother, then you’ll force your stepdaughter to “defend” her mother by adopting her style (and rubbing it in your face).

If instead you grant her as much leeway as you can stand to try on her two personas — she’s going to, just accept that — you’ll empower her. An empowered girl chooses clothes she likes, not clothes that beg for attention.

That’s not guaranteed, of course, but if she does go all in for provocative clothes, then there will be only so much you can do to stop her once she hits her teens. Trying to stop her anyway will fail — at a steep cost to any precious goodwill you’ve banked.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at

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