Kids and Their Clothes: A Few Stories

Eliza Clark
April 7, 2011

Want to get a lively conversation going with a bunch of parents? Just start asking about their children's favorite items of clothing. Or their strategies for getting their young kids dressed in the morning. Tell your own horror story about having a fight in the shoe store, and everyone will start chiming in. 

An informal survey of parent friends revealed just how wacky our young kids' clothing tastes can be. Favorite items of clothing for a group of three- to six-year-olds include: a kitten t-shirt; a bathing suit (whether or not it's time for a swim); mommy's cast-offs; flannel pajamas at any time of day; a fairy dress; a rash-guard in place of a shirt; soccer shorts regardless of weather or a dress (one boy); a superhero costume or his sister's sparkly clothes (another boy).

Regardless of these eccentricities, the parents and kids we know seem to handle morning wardrobe negotiations pretty efficiently. Several moms said they were supremely grateful for school uniforms, while others adopted a more laissez-faire, let-them-choose-and-live-with-it attitude. One clever three-year-old has eliminated all morning struggles by getting dressed for the next day after her evening bath. Who needs pajamas? (I might try this myself!)

No matter how smooth the routine, conflicts over clothes are hard to avoid, and they can produce a meltdown alarmingly fast. That fight in the shoe store -- it was over princess sneakers, and a little girl ended up face down on the floor crying (mom was not exactly happy either, I might add).  In another story, the mother was the one to shed tears when her daughter declined to wear the lovely dress she'd gotten for her birthday party. 

Many young children are not fully on board with gender norms for clothes. And why should they be? In one household, an epic battle of wills raged for months between a little boy who wanted to wear dresses, and his dad who would not let him out of the house thus attired. Luckily, his inventive mother offered him an oversized t-shirt as a "boy dress."  "He didn't really buy it, but he wore it anyway," she said. Another mom gives her little girl the green light to wear a khaki pants and her big brother's old blazer to family holidays but has to handle the consternation of the grandparents as a result. 

Other battles revolve around what's appropriate for the weather.  Like the boy who wants to wear those soccer shorts every day, even with several feet of snow on the ground.  The conversation goes like this:

Boy: "I want to wear my soccer shorts."

Mom: "No. Jeans or cords?"

Boy: "Ugh. You are so mean."

Mom: "Jeans or cords?"

Layering long sleeves and leggings with favorite summer clothes also seems to work in a pinch.

An unexpectedly touchy area involves kids who want to get dressed all by themselves.  Beware the parent who points out that the buttons are not matched up, or the dress is on backwards.  A small person's sartorial ego can be a fragile thing.

Most parents wisely do their best to steer clear of conflict over their kids' clothes.  "You have to pick your battles" is a common motto.  In keeping with the avoidance strategy, by far the most popular tactic for dodging wardrobe battles involves "losing" objectionable items. One little girl's very favorite t-shirt (a "grotesque" gift from relatives according to her mother) is "lost" up on a high shelf behind some boxes.  I'm guessing that shirt will be lost for a very long time.

*****

Real parenting stories are, of course, more fascinating than fiction. But there are nevertheless a number of excellent picture books on the subject of children and their clothes.

In Ella Sarah Gets Dressed, our protagonist blithely rejects all parental input, and proves her point that preschool fashion rules make sense only to fellow preschoolers.

Froggy Gets Dressed proves mom's point that getting kids dressed to go outside in the snow is so exhausting that by the time the everyone has their gear on, you're ready to go back to bed.

Hannah and the Seven Dresses exposes the extreme dilemmas one can face when getting dressed for a birthday party.  (We've all been there.)

You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer! tells the charming tale of a 19th-century feminist dress reformer.  Fun pictures and straightforward text make this history popular with even the smallest non-conformists.

Finally, we love Joseph Had a Little Overcoat (Caldecott Medal winner, 2000).  What should we do with a beloved garment when it's getting all worn out?  Joseph shows us, brilliantly.

From the Parents

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