“She looks so cute when I drop her off and she is a mess every day when I pick her up.”
“Here, I packed him individually coordinated outfits in gallon plastic bags. Will you please make sure that when he changes he gets changed into a fully matching outfit?”
“What happened to her pigtails and the pretty ribbons I put in?!”
“Um, his pants are on backwards.”
Above you see listed some of my favorite (and rather frequent) quotes from parents I have heard over the years when we discuss their child’s dressing and appearance. I get it. Our children are adorable and precious. We cannot help but see them as extensions of ourselves and we live in a society that puts a lot of emphasis on appearance as a means of communicating who we are to the world. Parents want their kids to looks as cute as possible because a sweet child in an adorable outfit with just-so hair tells the world “this child is loved and seen as worthwhile.”
We parents are so hard on ourselves and seem to be constantly judging or being judged for our choices in relation to other parents and their choices. This situation is what can propel us into feeling compelled to show the world how loved our child is by way of their appearance. Nobody can second-guess a clean child in a stylish outfit and, quite likely, adults will comment on your adorable child and his/her cute little getup thus fluffing your ego and leading to a perpetuating cycle of need for tidy “cuteness.”
I’m here today to make the argument that, as long as your child is dressed appropriately for the weather, it doesn’t matter what they wear. In fact, a child in a woefully mismatched outfit with barely brushed hair and peanut butter on her cheeks is one I see in public and think, “now there’s a parent that is getting it right.” Independence in self-care is one of the greatest gifts we can give to our children for several reasons:
- Children build serious gross motor and fine motor skills along with strengthening their problem-solving abilities as they negotiate choosing their clothing, figuring out the order in which to put it on, and then going through the rather complex act of dressing.
- There is a natural ladder of independence that comes from self dressing. While we start out doing everything for them, eventually they can put their foot in the hole, then they start pulling their pants up, then they only need us to fasten a button, and finally they do it completely on their own.
- We learn more by doing than by passive experience. You can say “three skirts will be too uncomfortable” until you’re blue in the face or you can let your toddler wear them for a few days and figure it out that it is REALLY uncomfortable. You can make them put their pants on with the zipper in the front or you can let them spend the day trying to use the toilet successfully with the zipper in the back and figure out that it actually works best to have the zipper in the front. They will keep doing it “wrong” until they have the proper natural motivation to do it “right.”
- Letting them do it teaches them that we believe that they can do hard things. Grit isn’t something that someone has by nature, it is built slowly over many challenges and attempts to try again. When our child is old enough to do something and we still do it for them we send the message that the way they do it isn’t “good enough” and we can do it better. When we take over or “fix” problems that aren’t dangerous, we subconsciously tell our children that they shouldn’t try because they won’t do it well. Instead, we want them to have a growth mindset in which they believe that if they work hard and keep trying, they can get better at anything.
- We can teach ourselves early on that our children aren’t really “ours” because they belong to themselves. This one is tough for a lot of parents, especially when their children are young. Think about it, though, do your parents “own” you? Haven’t you always felt like an individual separate from your family, even if you love them immensely? The same is true for your children. My daughter doesn’t choose outfits that I would choose for her. She hasn’t since she was two. As long as she is dressed for the weather, I don’t care. In fact, I’ve come to celebrate it. She is a brilliant dresser and her unique nature truly shines through in her self-expression through fashion. She isn’t mine. She is hers and that is beautiful.
- Independent dressing is yet another tool available to us for sexual abuse prevention. When we allow our children to fully own their self and their bodies we also empower them with the understanding that no adult (or any person for that matter) should have control over them. We teach them early that they are in charge of their bodies and their choices and predators are turned off by this. Child predators look for children who aren’t likely to tell on them and a confident and independent child is scary to them. Self-dressing is obviously only a tiny part of the work we parents need to do to prevent this tragedy. Click here for more information on this from Parenting Safe Children.
This outfit would not have occurred to me.
Parents, please, be nice to yourselves. Your job is already exhausting and the toddler need for independence is very real and impossible to fight. (In fact, you should seek every opportunity to foster that need as it is the best thing you can do for their brilliant little brains.) Let go. If your children can do it themselves, let them. Have a few rules that teach them social norms: we dress up for church and weddings; we wear black and gray to funerals; we put shorts on under dresses. Whatever your short list of rules is, keep it short. Nobody thinks that the child in the cowboy boots, cape, and fedora has a bad mother. Everyone just thinks he’s cute. No matter what.
Just take this one thing off your plate. You and your child will both be better off because of it.
PS- If you are a parent who sends your child to preschool with coordinated outfits in gallon sized ziploc bags and requests that the teachers supervise them to make sure they always match. STOP. Stop now and never ask again. It is so disrespectful of their status as educators. You would never ask your child’s high school history teacher to make sure her clothes matched, don’t do it to the preschool teacher. You can’t control what happens during your child’s day when you aren’t there. You probably picked a great school and your child is fine. Just relax…and stop it with the ziplocs.