With some families, fashion frustration starts quite young. I know many parents who at one time during infancy were shocked with what their partner dressed their baby in. I think my own husband delighted in dressing our first child in the craziest outfits possible just to watch my blood pressure rise. Alas, the days of my control over my daughter’s clothing choices were short lived. Somewhere around age two, my daughter was ready to debut her own sense of style and who was I to stand in the way?
Well, to be honest, I did try and stand in the way. Like many parents, I worried her choices would leave her too hot, too cold, too fancy, or too grubby. But then there were the days when her choices involved stripes, polka dots, and clashing colors; dresses with pants, shorts and rain boots at the same time; and the dreaded solid color from head to toe, in pink no less! It’s not like I am a fashionista myself, but I worried my little mismatched munchkin was color and pattern blind and would someday end up on “What Not to Wear.” I would try and be subtle, “How about we change your shirt so it matches your pants.” Like any strong-willed two year old, the answer was always a resounding “NO!” It’s amazing how fast those power struggles put me right back in the dressing room arguing with my own parents over back-to-school clothes. I quickly realized that conflicts over clothing must end and put my professional hat on to help me get some perspective.
Young children do not have many choices. They go to bed when we tell them to, they eat what we give them, they go to school where we take them, and are cared for by those we leave them with. It’s amazing they adapt as well as they do. Somewhere along the way, they want some sense of power as well. As they become more involved with dressing themselves, they naturally begin to use this as an opportunity to assert themselves to feel some independence and control over their world.
It is important to give our children room to do this, but like other opportunities for independence, this room can come in ways that work for parents as well. Basically, it comes down to accepting that we have to pick our battles with kids. We have to assess whether an issue is important enough to us to stand our ground or whether it’s something we can let go. We all have different values and thoughts on what the answer is for each of the challenges we face with our kids. The best approach is to let go of all the stuff you can, so that your word and limits on the really important stuff (safety, respect, health, etc.) will be heard as important.
What I realized when it came to clothes is that there were a few things that were important to me. I let go of control in the areas that were not important to me, and made some clear decisions around the areas that were important to me. We created three guidelines around clothing choices when she was about two, and those are the same three we use over five years later. Here’s what we came up with: dress appropriate for the weather, dress appropriate for where we are going (we don't wear fancy stuff to school, or we need to wear something nice to a fancy occasion), and no bellies showing unless we are in swimsuits. This last one helped me address both moving out of beloved clothes that were way too small, and the concern that “sexy” is entering the wardrobe of girls at a frighteningly early age. A few years ago, we added one more step to help us avoid morning hassles- our kids need to pick out their clothes the night before.
Our mantra for clothing challenges, and most parenting challenges, is to be kind and firm at the same time: We give our children the freedom to dress how they want, but we are firm on our three guidelines. Our children know these guidelines and have agreed to them.
When choices don't fit those rules, we ask, "How does that choice fit with our rules about what we can wear?" Then the child gets to be the one to evaluate that and select again. When we have clear guidelines and our children know what they are, we can then ask questions to prompt what you have talked about. This is much less likely to lead to a power struggle. "What do you need to wear so you won't be cold outside?" "What do you need to put on before we leave the house?” When she does do what she needs to, just add a simple thank you.
I know the question you are about to ask; I can hear it from here. "What if my child chooses not to put on a coat, then she is going to freeze!" I have two good options for you:
1) You can say, "Well, we can't go out without our coats on. I will know you are ready to leave for school when you have your coat on/bring it to me to help you put on.” Then casually and calmly find something to do while she works that out for herself. Try to stay away from hovering, telling her things she already knows, engaging as little as possible without being disrespectful. They are looking for power. If you don't react, she is going to quickly learn that she is more powerful when she takes care of what she needs to.
2) You can give your child a choice. "Its really cold outside and I feel concerned you will be really cold without your coat. Would you like to wear it or carry it/put it in your backpack?” When we give them a choice, they are likely to choose, especially if we are kind and respectful as we say it. If you leave the house and your child later says, “I'm cold,” you can say, “What can you do to get warmer?” Try to steer clear of saying, “I told you so” as that just gets kids in the power struggle place instead of thinking for themselves, "wow, mom was right, I do need to wear a coat."
There are of course other options, but if they don’t model respect for ourselves (the firm part) and respect for our children (the kind part), I am not sure if they will get the results you want as quickly and lovingly.
Parenting through this kind of challenge is hard. You grow this baby inside you, they are literally part of you and rely on you completely in the first year, and then you spend the next however many years reminding yourself that they are their own person and we have to view them as such. Yes, we have to keep them safe, but we also have to allow them to take risks, to learn things for themselves, develop self-discipline, self-confidence, etc. Allowing them to make their own clothing choices is one of the ways we can let them separate in to their own unique person.
It is amazing what happens when we get clear on what really matters to us, and communicate that in a calm respectful way to our children. Clothing struggles are just one place where parenting in this way can really help us. There are still going to be days when you must bite your tongue and accept that your sense of fashion may differ greatly from your child’s. When we are clear on the guidelines though, it becomes easier for us to let the rest go.
What I do know for sure is that this kind of parenting works. It’s about parenting from kindness and firmness at the same time, allowing our kids room to both succeed and fail, and learning that a good portion of parenting challenges involve us shifting our own perspective. It raises amazing kids who know how to take care of themselves because they have been given room to do so. They are respectful and empathetic because their parents have been with them. Chances are, with all the room to express their fashion freedom as little ones, they will grow in to self confident adults with a style all their own. Be sure to hold on to pictures of those crazy outfits. Your grandchildren will love them!