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Modesty as Protection for Our Special Needs Children

By Tom and Sherry Bushnell

    Understanding modesty is an issue that can really enhance a disabled child's social success. Granted, some of our children will never really understand what modesty means, but we can help them by placing rules in their lives that will take the place of their comprehension, thereby helping them be modest.

In our day and age, all young girls are at risk. Special needs girls, who are sweet and innocent, unaware of the danger of men who might want to exploit them physically are in great danger.

What is modest? We will not attempt to tell you how to interpret what the Bible says on modesty. Our family's standard of dress will leak out here and there in this article. We are Christians that love Jesus and are striving to please Him in our dress. Our family attends a Mennonite church and our dress might naturally follow a more conservative pattern than you have for your home. Let's all remember that modesty is the key. Safety for our special needs children, young men and women, is what we want to share about.

Modesty...the light goes on in our heads.

Modesty begins at home. When our children were very young, we used to laugh at literature that made a big deal about big brothers dressing little sisters, helping with the pottying, etc. That was until our oldest boys were in their young teens and we realized that for our boy's modesty sake (they were embarrassed to be seeing their sisters in their nothings) we needed to think through this modesty issue. Perhaps there was more to it than we thought. In fact, after a few more years, we realized that modesty not only begins in our home, but in our hearts. What we wore in the home during the day and at night meant a lot to our children. They were watching us. In fact, we realize that God is watching not only what we wear, but also why we are wearing our clothing. Who are we pleasing? What are we trying to accomplish in our style of dress?

Our children will pattern our habits. Teaching their children socially appropriate boundaries is a responsibility parents are taking seriously. At what age do we start? Now is the time. Our habits, how we display physical affection, the books we read or movies we watch, even what we wear at bed time or around the house are all visible cues to our children. We cannot hope to teach our children what modesty means if we ourselves have not taken care to communicate as a family and choose our boundaries. Here we present some thoughts. Take them, as you will. Perhaps they will not fit your family's way of doing things. If your children are younger or more perceptive or naturally more modest, some of these things may not be an issue.

Physical Affection: For our special needs children, more important than our style of dress is how we physically relate to each other. We want to be careful not to throw out all good for a little bad. Hugs, kisses are such an important part of our home. Yet not until our son with Down syndrome came up and gave mommy a passionate kiss on the lips did we understand how we needed to amend our times for affection. One of the great things about being around our disabled children in the home, at church, or in public, is that we can instantly correct wrong social behavior and then immediately model the right behavior. We want our children to be safe and to know what makes others feel safe around them.

When our disabled children grow up to be teenagers, they may not be cute anymore. It is kind and fair to begin NOW to give them boundaries that will be healthy for life. How sad to have to ban hugging, sitting on laps, tickling, and other forms of physical affection that were a fun part of a child's life. It is better, if a child will never understand the social norms of not hugging strangers, sitting on laps, etc. to NEVER start these habits. This advice comes from a number of families who have been there with mentally disabled older teen sized, full figured young women and men.

Young Men and what Modesty Means for Them - Many times when we think of the word modesty we think of how it applies to young women. What can modesty mean for teenage boys? In our home, we have chosen to wear shirts with sleeves, even when swimming in the hot sun, to avoid sunburn. Tight swimming suits that show every lump and bump are not appropriate. But modesty means more than clothing for our young men. We have taught Jordan to shake hands and not hug, unless hugged first. This is because he cannot distinguish when someone doesn't want a hug. (Part of us says, "give'em one anyway!") But this is not fair to Jordon. We have forbid tickling as a form of attention getting, especially tickling girls to make them jump and screech (what fun). We want others to feel comfortable around him too. Modesty also means getting dressed in a private place and not walking around in nothings or close to it. Modesty means not talking about subjects that are lewd or could be interpreted as such. It also means using no questionable words in general conversation.

Worldly-minded medical and educational professionals may tell children and their parents that masturbation is an O.K. form of expression. God says that it is not. What we allow in our homes will be broadcasted in church, in the grocery store or at our friend's house. We do not allow this form of self-gratification at anytime. For us the problem of prohibiting masturbation in public does not exist. Many mentally disabled youth cannot distinguish when to "do what feels good" and when not to.

Social Physical Contact -: If we allow our pre-teen daughters to sit in Daddy's or Grandpa's laps, and this is a part of how they have learned to display affection with everybody, they are in danger. How can we explain, so they understand fully, that not all men are good? It is better not to start habits that they cannot continue, as they are older, although we might long to hold them as they are older. Our special needs girls must learn to be uncomfortable in too-close-of-body placement and sitting positions with the opposite gender, if they cannot discern a good man from a man with lust toward her in his heart. It is wise not to allow full body hugging with the opposite sex, but to actually teach and practice with them side-by-side, one arm around shoulder hugging.

For our children who are socially with-out-a-clue, we need to practice talking at arms length, not too close to the face. In our family, we have had to teach Jordon, our son with Down syndrome not to stick out his tongue and not to scratch himself. With Sheela, our daughter who is blind, we are constantly reminding her to sit up, not to wag her head about, not to touch or rub herself or scratch in inappropriate ways in public.

Did you know that our young adult's hand or body motions, involuntary or on purpose may be sexually suggestive to others who are carnally minded? For instance, our daughter Lynny had a habit of rolling on her side and moving her body in a really suggestive way. We knew she was only stimming, but others who did not know about autism actually asked us if she had been sexually abused. Yikes. That was when we really learned to understand that the general public is rather limited in understanding of special needs and that there was not going to be any safe stimming or suggestive motions, even rocking, as the girls got older.

Tickling - When our first children were young we allowed tickling and generally didn't bat an eye. We had 3 small boys and they were rough and tumble. Then along came blind little Sheela. Her rough brothers naturally came to include her in their play. We saw at once that it was not going to be appropriate for Sheela to do any tickling. She had bad aim and was naturally curious. This lead to howls from her brothers who had "rules" about where to tickle on the body such as; the crotch was off limits, etc. We also saw that as our little men got older they needed boundaries and some lessons on how to treat little ladies. After a few incidences, we banned tickling period until we could come up with some rules. This ban is still loosely in effect, because as more children came into our family and our children grew older, we could not come up with any safe rules to include the boys and girls together. The occasional tickle on the foot, tummy or chin is still a part of our happy family fun.

Dress - It is very ordinary to have our children want to dress just like us. The style of dress, the pattern of materials, the length of skirts, how high to button our collars is all being carefully scrutinized by our non-disabled children. All of our girls love to have dresses "just like mommy's". Isn't it true that what we dress in, what others see us in first, may be how they initially judge us? What about our special needs children? Are they neat in appearance? Have we carefully thought of ways to make them more socially pleasant to look at? These are hard and cruel sounding questions, but a mother with a disabled child knows how important it is to be "normal" looking.

We can guarantee that if we have not checked Sheela's eyes when she has a cold or eye irritability, they will be really crusted over with shmuck. Yuck. She is blind and wears fake eyes, prosthesis. It is up to her to clean them, but sometimes she misses or forgets (not very often really!) She also may come downstairs for church or the day wearing mismatched socks, a dress with a rip, dirty clothing, or one of her little sister's pieces. Aside from all this, we have taken care to make sure Sheela has a wardrobe that we can be pretty certain she will come down the stairs in the morning wearing something that will not make her brothers groan, her sisters squeal, her father cringe and her mother throw up her hands in dismay. We thank the Lord for appropriate dresses, for to be honest, finding our style of clothing, in her size, is impossible at WalMart. Mommy's sewing and pass-ons from friend's makes each dress special to Sheela. But then you'd have to understand Sheela to understand why she thinks this way. Smile.

In our home the style of dress is not as important to us as making sure modesty is achieved. This means that although we love to wear dresses, it simply is not modest for Lynny, our 10 year old with cerebral palsy and autism. She still scoots on the floor to get around, along with using her walker. She is more modest in sweat pants and a shirt. Sundays, when she is at church and in a wheel chair all day, a dress is O.K. So you see, there is no way any one person can say that THUS AND SUCH! is the way to please God with dress. ( It is a matter of our hearts. We have a feeling that if we as mommies are wearing a modest dress and are still looking for compliments, or to see how beautiful we can look to others, that true modesty has not been achieved.)

Suggested practical How-to's:

1. Pray for the Lord's guidance on how to please Him. Some men may enjoy seeing their wives or daughters in tight clothing because it makes them as "owners" look good, making other men jealous. This is a raw example, but we want to please God first, even in dress.

2. Communicate as husband and wife. Enforce standards by providing modest clothing and getting rid of the rest.

3. Be consistent. If you live in hot weather, decide what's right for swimming for our disabled children. Take into consideration their body movements, social habits, and company. Don't visit places that do not have similar standards of modesty to go swimming or picnicking such as public beaches. Confusion about how to dress should be minimal if we consistently present modestly covered people around them. Taking clothes off in public should always be wrong. Modern bathing suits may look like undergarments or less to disabled youngsters that cannot understand social nudity.

4. In the home eliminate all masturbation, rubbing or scratching as self-stim habits. Also take an honest look at rocking, moaning or any behavior that could be thought of as sexually suggestive by some depraved-minded loony. This is for the safety of our children and to help them be more pleasant to be around. If you are interested in eliminating self-stim, perhaps read the article from our Fall 1996 NATHHAN News article called Simply Self-Controlled Special Needs Children.  By Tom and Sherry Bushnell

The innocent tender hearts of our disabled children, by God's grace, should never feel the sting of sexual abuse. Our adult "children" need not feel the confusing guilt and shame either. Abuse of the disabled is rampant. We can begin preparing and protecting them for their youth and adult lives by placing rules and a sense of modesty in their lives. So many disabled children are clueless as to what is modest and right. Society sends confusing messages. What is right? As Christians, we believe that disability is no excuse for not placing boundaries in our children's lives for protection. Understanding modesty or obeying modesty rules makes our special needs young men and woman into true gentleman and ladies.