Winning and Learning from Children's Clothing Battles
The winter months bring many outside changes to family life. Less daylight means fewer hours for children to play outside, and colder weather translates to replacing short sleeve shirts, shorts and light dresses with pants, sweaters and heavy coats. Throw in really cold weather requiring hats and mittens, and your child’s wardrobe may take on a complete makeover.
Many children enjoy picking out new styles and putting together new colors. However, there are a significant number of children for whom such change is not welcome because it creates disruption and conflict. Whether the resistance comes from refusing to wear a coat, protesting the way a certain fabric feels or preferring to wear certain clothes over and over, winter brings unwanted clothing battles to many families.
Making clothing choices is one of the earliest ways a young child begins to exert self-determination and personal agency within a social sphere. In fact, if parents of typically developing children regularly pick out their child’s clothing each day, they could be missing an opportunity to teach their child how to take on an age-appropriate task and the challenges that go with it.
Just like dressing oneself, the ability to choose clothing signifies that a young child is growing in her capacity to act autonomously and independently, as well as care for herself in an age-appropriate manner. Parents should cultivate this choice as fully as possible.
In older school children, clothing choice often serves as a statement of self-identity and definition to help identify a child with a particular style and social group or, conversely, distinguishing oneself from peers — and even parents.
When possible, parents should offer children as much leeway as possible in making personal clothing decisions, with the knowledge that sacrificing parental preference may actually support and promote their child’s self-confidence through small, repeated acts of self-determination. More importantly, such self-definition presents parents with a meaningful chance to discuss with their child how what they choose to wear affects the way people identify and think of each other. Asking middle or high school students how they think others view them, and how their choice of clothing affects that perception, can lead to some revealing conversations.
Of course, sometimes a child’s desire to exert self-determination can bump up against good taste or sense. Children between the ages of 2 and 5 who refuse to wear a coat on a freezing day can lead to agonizing conflict. Keep in mind, just like what food a child chooses — or refuses — to eat, the battleground isn’t just about food or clothing. In the end, patience and flexibility go a long way toward helping a young child figure out some way of staying warm and comfortable. If he refuses to wear a coat, acknowledging his preference and offering a sweater, sweatshirt or pullover might produce a better outcome than drawing a line in the sand.
A child between the ages of 6 and 16 years might reveal what motivates him or her by exploring the desire to wear a particular article of clothing. “Why do you want to wear it?” “What impression do think it will make?” and “Who do you think will notice it?” are all reasonable questions to ask in this situation. In the end, what might feel like a clothing battle between parent and child can serve as a first step toward gaining understanding about how your child thinks and feels as a distinct individual.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.