How my children dress is extremely reflective of their personalities. They choose what they will wear and dress themselves, my girls. They both started this by two. They are quite insistent about it, actually.
I think children need some power and control in their world, and why not over the things they wear?
Other people---moms mainly---have debated this point fiercely with me. The main counterpoint is that the moms feel it is no favor to the child to let her go about looking like a ragamuffin or freak. I hear that point, I do. But. I'm not sold on this.
In the past, I have definitely thought my point---if you can't dress up and dress how you like at 2, 3, 4 then when can you? let's indulge the littlest kids---weighed more than the rest.
So what if Patience sometimes felt like being a cat, and thus wore a cat tail with her clothes, and only spoke in meows?
But now, at school age, the small doubts that had been creeping in---the worry that maybe those moms, who seem to be the vast majority, and who somehow manage to rule their children's wardrobes---are getting larger for me.
What seemed just fine at preschool feels too vulnerable for public school.
See, Patience often dons costumes. In the past it was usually animals, but now it is a theme. Her clothes indicate what she is currently most excited about, or the idea or interest she is currently fascinated by.
Right now, that happens to be Christmas. She is delighted to wear clothes with candy canes, Christmas trees, penguins...anything to do with winter and Christmas. Every day.
Yesterday I sent Patience upstairs after breakfast to do her Get Ready for School routine. When she reappeared, she was dressed and ready to go.
But I faced head on what has become my new, big dilemma every morning: can I really let her go out looking like that? How deep does my philosophy run? How deep should it run?
Patience was wearing a pair of magenta legging pants with a cream colored sweater adorned with a Christmas tree, and sewn on decorations. It's an adorable sweater, on its own. But it was slightly too small, as were the pants (oh so suddenly) and anyway, it was going to be at least 75 degrees. Plus, there was no rhyme or reason to it going with the pants.
This past summer I began working with Patience on matching colors, not just ideas, and matching patterns, not just colors. She's still hit or miss, but I feel she needs to learn how to do it herself. Some days I am wowed by the clever and cool outfits she puts together. But more often, on other days, like yesterday, I am somewhere between a teensy and a lot horrified.
As usual, I worked to formulate my diplomatic feedback. I started with the research portion, first, "Patience, sweetie, how did you decide to wear that sweater and those pants, and together?"
"Wellllll, Mom, it's Christmas-time so of course I have to wear a Christmas sweater," she told me.
"You know it's not a rule," I told her, "You aren't required to wear Christmas themed clothes, but you prefer to, and that's fine."
"Riiiiiight," she replied, in one ear and out the other. What's solid in her mind is simply what is.
"And the pants?"
"They're my favorite pants! And they're cheerful."
"Okay," I said, "The only thing is that there aren't any colors in the sweater that go with magenta. That's why I asked."
She paused. She could tell this was another of mom's matching lessons and I could tell she wasn't willing to budge.
"Are you happy with the outfit, how it feels and looks?" I queried, my concession question.
"Will you be okay if someone comments about how you are dressed, and maybe not in a "I think it's great" way?"
"Okay, well I have to admit, it is a very cheerful outfit, and that Christmas sweater is pretty neat, with all those things sewn on."
But I felt unsure: was I doing the right thing? Should I insist she dress "better," to some standard of girl cuteness and matching?
Some part of me seriously doubts my approach. Some part of me fears that what sounds great in theory is not that helpful or beneficial in practice.
People in Patience's life are used to Patience's quirky mode of dress. Some outfits garner comments, barely disguised as accepting. On the whole though, people around her accept it. They know she is an off the charts creative, out of the box thinker who is pretty quirky in many ways.
I think it delights some people we know, who enjoy the openness and insight into Patience that her outfits reveal. Who truly appreciate her originality.
But I know, out there, is a person who won't, who doesn't and who lacks the milk of kindness that would prevent them from saying something vicious to hurt her.
We met that person last night. At Target.
She was a little girl about Patience's age, clearly of the diva variety. Her hair was pulled back in a neat barrette, and clearly got curled each day, because the ends curled in little ringlets. She wore a sunday-go-to-meeting dress, and was perfectly turned out, a la a magazine. She stared at us, a long, direct assessing gaze. I accepted it because I feel more comfortable with being stared at than I do with discouraging children from connecting with people by looking at them. In general, I think assessing looks are helpful for human connection.
Not so with this child. Her stare was not assessing, rather it was measuring. And clearly, we failed.
As we stood in line, the child and her mother ahead of her, the mother busy with the transaction, me distracted by Persistence monkeying around in the cart, something happened.
"Mom!" Patience suddenly said, urgently, "Mom!"
I stopped handling Persistence and turned, concerned by Patience's tone. "What honey?"
"That girl," she said, turning her eyes and finger to the child in front of us, "That girl walked over to me and told me I looked ugly!"
"What?" I said, shocked, but not disbelieving. Patience is a very honest, if dramatic, child.
"That girl told me I looked ugly!"
I turned to look at the girl, who stared back, smug and defiant. She gave a small nod. My body leaned back in some surprise. I had no doubt: she said it, and she expected her word to stand, and rule. Wow.
"Do you think that's true?" I asked Patience, turning my back to the other girl.
"No! But she said it!" Patience cried, and I could tell she was more upset by the injustice of it than stung or hurt by the comment itself.
"Then it's not true. So she said it. It's a kind of mean thing to say. But what do you do when someone says something mean like this that isn't true?"
"I let it roll off my back and go on about my business."
"That sounds pretty smart," I told her, "She can't tell you who you are or how you are, right?"
Patience agreed. And we ignored the other little girl.
I don't know what most mothers would have done. I sense that a lot would have done something that provided attention to the other little girl in some way. I sense that there would have been either some drama or invalidation. Or maybe that's me, projecting.
But it is so essential to me to teach my girls that who they are comes from deep inside them, and sometimes, people might not like or accept that, but it was important to not let those opinions cause them to devalue themselves.
Still, it was upsetting to both me and Patience. Patience was upset because I think it did cause her to wonder about her outfit...and I provided, from our conversation that morning, that opening for the words to get through. That part upset me, and also again, I worried again about my approach to how I let my girls dress.
I glanced at my girls: Patience in her mismatched Christmas outfit, a half size too small. Her hair, adorable in my eyes, but always slightly messy looking due its fineness and waves. It would do better clipped back, but she can't stand the feel of barrettes or elastics, at least not for long. Her scalp is so sensitive. Persistence in a pink velour leotard with filmy skirt, and sneakers. Her hair in that awkward 'growing out finally' stage, with a portion always coming over her eyes. She can't stand the feel of barrettes or elastics for long either, so her hair usually looks a bit unkempt, too.
I know they don't look like they stepped out of a catalog, all stylish and hip or all little girl cute. People don't exclaim over how adorable they are, not in real life, not when I post photos. They don't do cute, and that's what people like to see: big smiles, and bouncy shiny hair all done up, precious outfits, adorable poses. People like to see uncomplicated joy in children, refreshing innocence. But I don't think all people come that way, uncomplicated and innocent. I don't think my girls have. I didn't. However, I do think my children are beautiful and I think they look interesting, like a child with a brain between her ears and a big personality, to boot.
I think they are pretty incredible children, actually.
And I want to foster it, not crush it.
I weigh my desire for my children to be themselves, and have absolute confidence in being themselves against the fact that we live in a society, with its commonly held standards, and filled with people like that little girl.
I'm not sure that confidence and esteem are enough.
We are, by nature, pack animals, and I think we desire the love and acceptance of others. When we get a message that doesn't fit with that, it will affect us.
I think the only thing I can do is help my girls learn how to manage that.
But maybe my role demands more.
This morning I'll face the same question with Patience, I'm sure. She'll wear something that will trouble me a bit, because I know it won't look good to anyone else. And now my vague fear that someday someone will say something is both lesser and greater.
Greater because it happened; it's no longer a vague fear.
Lesser because she handled it, when it happened. But, I will follow-up with her about it. Right about...now.
Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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