When kids want to choose their own outfits

Some preschoolers are pickier about their clothes than they are about their dinner.

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“My four-year-old wears a dragon costume almost daily,” says Marcie Sharp, a mom in a small town near Chatham, Ont. Her daughter, Robin, found the green plush outfit while sorting through her brother’s outgrown clothes and Halloween costumes last September. “She went through a princess/dragon phase after reading Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess, so it fit perfectly with her imagination.”

It’s been tough for Sharp to get her to take it off. “For now, I’ve been letting her wear it almost anytime she likes, except when we have an important occasion to attend, or when we’re out for a while.” Robin is allowed to prance around as a dragon at her grandma’s, but not at school (so she doesn’t distract the other kids), and she can wear it to the grocery store, but not to the library for storytime.

While my four-year-old, Addyson, doesn’t have an affinity for dragon costumes, she certainly has something to say about the clothes she puts on every morning — especially if what I pull out for her isn’t a dress. More specifically, she wants one particular dress: It’s grey, has tiered layers and a few hot-pink stars on the top. It’s the only thing she ever wants to wear.

One reason, says Vancouver parenting coach Lisa Bunnage, is a need for control. “This is the age when children start stretching their wings and look for a little control over their lives,” she says. “But this really is the ‘small stuff’ when you look at the big picture of parenting. I don’t think what kids wear is ever in the ‘big stuff’ department, unless they want to go skiing in a bathing suit.”

Preschoolers also start to express a need for independence, says Sonia Nicolucci, a certified parenting educator in Aurora, Ont. “They begin to show and voice how capable they are. This safe form of self-expression is wonderful, and won’t last long, so have fun with it,” she advises.

Cara Yost’s daughter Frances, who’s four, has also sported some questionable attire in public. “For example, this morning she put on three pairs of socks of different lengths, tights, a dress and a vest,” says Yost. (They do live in Winnipeg, but this much layering is still excessive.) Yost adds that she doesn’t get too bent out of shape when her daughters (she has three girls) take a few liberties with their wardrobes. “When I was a kid, I had little choice when it came to clothes, which annoyed me to no end.” Even though some of the outfits make her cringe, she goes with it. “If wearing a shirt over a dress with a skirt, tights and legwarmers all in clashing prints makes Frances feel more in control, I don’t see the harm in it.”

Bunnage says this phase usually ends by grade one, when there’s more peer pressure to fit in. In the meantime, parents can offer options. “The more choices you give, the better. Go through her wardrobe and let her help make a bunch of different outfits, then let her choose which ones she’ll wear each day.”

Nicolucci adds that it doesn’t hurt to do a little training. “Bring out the paint set and show your kids what colours match. Bring out the thermometer and show them that when the temperature is below a certain point, they need to wear warm clothes to school.”

When Sharp needs her daughter to wear an outfit that doesn’t consist of dragon wings and scales, she gives Robin a choice of two outfits. “If there’s a fuss, we can usually come up with a compromise. Still, I shudder to think what her wardrobe will be like at 16.”

A version of this article appeared in our June 2013 issue with the headline “Outfit artists,” p. 80.

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