A Modest Start: Our German Au Pair Discovers “Plato’s Closet”

platos closet“I need to get some new pants,” Michaela said to me at dinner the other night. “It’s so hot, and I have only this pair,” pointing to the clam diggers she had on. Prior to her arrival I had told her about the “fingertip” rule in our house (that shorts could be no shorter than the tip of the index finger when placed next to the body), and had been ridiculously pleased to see that she had remembered.

“I have just the place — let’s go to Plato’s Closet!” Sarah cheered at this — it is her favorite clothing store, where you can buy brand name clothing, for peanuts (or close to it).

We drove to Exton and walked into the store, and I watched Michaela’s eyes light up as she spotted an Abercrombie and Fitch sweatshirt. For $19. She threw her hands in the air. “I LOVE AMERICA!!!”

Sarah and I busied ourselves as Michaela selected a few pair of shorts and went into the dressing room to change. Sarah found a sequined red top for her class picnic the next day. (My little “glitter girl.”)

The next morning, she had on the shorts. Apparently in her excitement over A&F, the “fingertip rule” had escaped her. For about 2.3 seconds, until Sarah caught a glimpse. “YOU FORGOT THE FINGERTIP RULE! THOSE ARE TOO SHORT!!!”

I took Sarah aside as quickly as I could, not wanting to have this conversation with Michi in front of her. “Sarah, you are right that those shorts were too short, and that we would not have allowed you to wear them. Michi is still getting used to us, and we need to show some patience and kindness. Let’s just love her, and focus on what we like about her, okay?”

The next day, I gently suggested to Michi that, to avoid confusing Sarah about what is expected at our house, she find longer shorts — and that I would pay for them for her. To my relief, she readily agreed.

Sometimes in our interactions with others, we have a choice between forcing our will in a way that makes the other person feel small or ashamed — in a sense, offending their dignity as human beings — or speaking gently, from a place of love. This is true not only of au pairs, but of extended family members, neighbors, other parents. Even other Christians.

Gentleness won’t always work, of course. Sometimes a more forceful, insistent word is needed. But it’s always a good place to start.

Have you ever had to challenge an older teen or college student about their wardrobe? How did you do it — and how was it received?

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