I could hear her wailing as I walked by the playground; a little girl with tear-stained face and bright red cheeks was standing near her teacher. “I’m too hot for my coat!” she protested. I couldn’t hear the teacher’s response, but I could tell by the girl’s reaction that the teacher insisted that she keep her coat on.
Battles between children and adults over clothing are pretty common. We “know” the appropriate attire for various occasions and weather conditions. But kids have other priorities; they want something that is comfortable, that looks like what their friends wear, or that makes them feel like a superhero.
I tried to put myself in the teacher’s position. What might be the reasons she had for wanting the girl to keep on her coat? True, it was cold outside, but not bitterly so, and I could easily see how a child who was very active could quickly get too warm. Maybe she didn’t want the child to lose or forget the coat? Or maybe she was afraid of parents’ reactions? For every reason I could think of (with the exception of the child having some type of medical condition that made getting a little cold dangerous), there were solutions that didn’t require the teacher to override the girl’s need to cool off.
Later in the day, I was thinking of the situation again, and it really struck me that forcing a child to wear a coat actually undermines the message that “my body is my own.” Although it comes from a sense of concern for the child’s well-being, it ultimately boils down to “I’m bigger and more powerful than you and therefore you have to do what I want.” And kids who regularly are pushed into doing things they don’t want to by people who they trust (or at least depend on) have a harder time standing up for themselves when they need to. I don’t want to take this too far by saying that making your child wear a coat is akin to sexual abuse, but it is one of many small messages we give kids that inadvertently tells them to give away their own power. And while I agree that there are a few things like this that we really can’t get away from, like unpleasant medical procedures, we should do our very best to avoid exerting power against our children.
So then what’s the alternative? My own way of handling it is to bring the child’s jacket or sweater if I think it’s cold. The child decides whether to wear it. Another family I know has a thermometer on the window, along with a sign showing the cutoff point for jackets and for for summer clothing; the kids are responsible for checking the thermometer and dressing accordingly. Dad says this has eliminated their clothing power struggles. Plus the kids really like checking the thermometer. Other families may be able to find different solutions that work for them.
The point is that once kids start being able to express their own preferences, we need to learn how to really listen to them. They need to know that it’s OK to speak up for themselves, ok to have an perspective that’s different than someone else they care about, to choose something different. If they can’t do this with a simple matter like clothes, how will they do it when the stakes are higher?
About the author: Amy is a mom, wife, sister, daughter, aunt, nanny, and friend who dreams of a world where compassion and kindness are the norm. Follow her at abetterwayparenting.com