Parents, choose your battles with preschool fashionistas

Fashion fights ... let them win.
Fashion fights ... let them win. Photo: Stocksy

The other day, as I attempted to get my four-year-old daughter, Gracie, dressed for a birthday party, I found myself in the battle that most people who have raised a preschooler know all too well.

The party was being held at one of the giant indoor inflatable parks known for letting attendees bounce themselves into sweat-covered oblivion. So I suggested a short-sleeved shirt/short combo.

"I want to wear this," Gracie said, pulling a thick, long-sleeved winter dress out of her closet.

Before I even had time to respond, she reached into the sock drawer.

"And tights," she said.

I tried gently explaining that she'd be way too hot in her chosen ensemble. I offered her similar-colored dresses, tops and shorts with lighter fabrics and shorter sleeves.

But Gracie wouldn't budge, and the altercation quickly escalated into a foot-stomping, tear-filled, screaming tantrum.

And though ultimately I won the feud - by threatening to not let her attend the party at all unless she calmed down and went with a short-sleeved option - it was far from my proudest moment as a parent.

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Arguing with your children about clothing and butting heads with a spirited toddler are not new parenting issues. For years, I've heard friends complain about little superheroes who insist on wearing their capes to church and other less-than-ideal places. Or high school girls choosing provocative bustlines without a second thought.

I've read numerous parenting articles about how allowing children to make their own choices - even those that seem mundane or inconsequential to us - can go a long way in helping them to develop self-esteem and learn how to express themselves creatively.

Yet as I drove to the party that morning after my dust-up with Gracie, I felt as though I had broken a basic rule of parenting. Despite all I knew about what my child was doing and why she was doing it, in that moment of live, emotional parenting, I failed to keep my cool.

"The question one has to think about is, 'Is it a battle worth fighting?'" said Dr. Jim Taylor, a psychologist and author of 'Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear From You.'

Of course I was familiar with the old "choose your battles" mantra that might as well come home with your baby in the hospital paperwork. But Taylor regularly hears from parents like me who find themselves in clothing battles with their children, even though they presume to know better.

In resolving the conflict, Taylor said he first helps parents identify exactly why they are objecting to their child's clothing choices so strongly: Practicality? Their own sense of fashion? Fear of judgment from other parents?

In my own case, I told Taylor I was mostly concerned about Gracie's well-being. I know my daughter heats up easily, and I was sure that a long-sleeved dress at a bouncy house party would leave her red-faced with sweaty pigtails in no time.

Taylor's expert opinion: Let her get hot. She'll learn.

"These are natural consequences," he said, noting that while it can be difficult to let go and allow your children to take in lessons themselves, the alternative - duking it out about wardrobe choices - thrusts your children into the world of worrying about what they look like.

And that's an unrelenting place.

"You don't want to make girls, especially, self-conscious about their appearance, particularly at this young age. Or for it to even be in their consciousness that what they wear matters," Taylor said. "Because it doesn't."

Taylor added that this parenting reminder is more important today than ever, because technology has amplified the images and expectations that young people measure themselves against.

"In many ways, it's a wonderful time to be a young woman or girl because of all the opportunity and equality," Taylor said. "In a way it's the worst, because physical appearance has become so central to success."

Since that day of the birthday party fight, I've taken a new approach to getting Gracie dressed. As always, we try to choose outfits the day before events, and I start by making general suggestions of what might work well: something comfortable for the park; something to keep warm on the walk to school.

But when she chooses outfits that I don't necessarily agree with - like the two short-sleeved shirts and tutu she picked for a visit to Grandma and Grandpa's house recently - I force myself to let go and remember that there's no point in battling with my four-year-old.

From what I've heard, I'm going to need to save my energy for choosing our battles when she's in high school.

TCA

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