Our four-year-olds are so fussy about what they wear


Help! Every four year old I know has a problem with clothes--mine won't wear anything but sweat pants, his best friend has to wear green, and the girl next door wants to try on her idea of cute outfits every morning while we're waiting to go to preschool. Should we go along with this?  Some friends say give in, don't make it an issue, others say you have to set a limit now or it will get even worse.  What do you think?

Sounds like you’re dealing with normal pre-schoolers.  Three- to five-year-olds can really impress us with how grown-up they are-- always excited about learning to do new things and to do them well.  But as children become more competent and self-confident, they also begin to assert their independence in ways that challenge parents.  Often, the daily routine of getting dressed becomes a battleground.  

The battles are your child’s way of saying:  “I’m me, not you.  It’s my body.  Let me be in charge.”  One child now has his own taste--green is good, yellow is out, crew neck, yes, collars no.  Another cares most about comfort--soft and baggy, no zippers, ever.  Some need the security of a favorite outfit--the worn gray sweat pants that always feel the same can be so comforting when you’re off to another busy day at school.  Some children love the messages that their clothing sends:  the frilly dress that says “I’m beautiful” or the super-hero T-shirt that says “I’m powerful”.  Even the child who doesn’t care what he wears may rebel if you want him to get dressed on your timetable--if he’s making a fort, why should he stop just because you’re going to be late for work?

Many parents find that battles with their pre-schooler over getting dressed can be decreased by trying these ideas:

•  First, step back from the issue and ask yourself:  Are we having battles about taste, style or comfort? If you are, consider whether the battles you are having to control you child’s preferences are worth it to you.  Perhaps you worry that what our parents called the “ragamuffin” look will cause others to think you’re not a good parent. Of course, one generation’s ragamuffin is the next generation’s trendy. That’s what we call fashion! But your child’s creativity in this area are probably more important than another parents’ opinion of you.

•  Once you can let go of the daily battles about taste, style, and comfort, you will find it much easier to be firm when the choice of clothing is really important to you.  Sometimes you will have to tell your child that she can’t wear best party dress to the park, her sweatpants to grandma’s birthday dinner, or her bathing suit on a chilly day.  If battles aren't going on every day, it will be easier for you to assert your parental authority without too much resistance.

•  Let your child pick new clothes (or new hand-me-downs) from choices you have “pre-selected”.   Keep in mind that most children like clothes that are soft, roomy, and easy for them to put on and take off.  Expect your child to have favorites, and let him wear them over and over, buying duplicates if  necessary.

•  You'll boost your child’s feelings of competence by putting her clothes within her reach, on hooks, in drawers, or on shelves where she can take them out easily.  Choose clothing that pulls on easily and has child friendly fasteners.

•  Each evening, have your child set out his clothing for the next morning , with your help if that works better. (Some parents even let children sleep in their shirts and socks so that half the dressing is already done-this saves on the cost of pajamas as well as extra minutes in the morning!)  Let your child know that the choice he makes at night is the final choice.

•  Use a kitchen timer to let your child know when it’s time to get dressed, “When the bell rings I want you to get your clothes on,”  or to race against time:  “Let’s see if you can get dressed before the bell rings!”  The timer’s signal is much more neutral than the voice of an impatient parent. 

•  Have your child get dressed when she first gets up, before she gets busy playing.  If your morning is so rushed that there’s barely time for dressing and never any time for play, it’s possible that the battle over dressing is your child’s plea for a slower pace and more attention.  Consider getting up earlier (which may mean having an earlier bedtime) so that you can tell your child:  “If you get dressed quickly, we’ll have time for a story before we leave.”

•  Last, remember that when your child tells you “I chose it myself” and beams with pride, she’s feeling great.  Admire her smiling face, even if you don’t care for the outfit-- your pride in her independence is more important than winning the fashion competition!