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Out of the mouths of babes

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."

She beamed.

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

Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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Gwen said…
First of all, you are so much nicer and more thorough than me in the "are you sure you want to wear that?" conversation. Ours go like this: "that doesn't really match; do you care? No? Okay." I'll be honest: I'm shocked that there are women still laying out their children's outfits for them. And I'm secretly proud (well, not such a secret anymore) that we don't fight over clothes in this house. I am the mother, after all, who let her 2 year old wear fleece footie pajamas everywhere for 6 months. I also let my children do whatever they want with their hair. Long, short, up, down, but mostly messmessmessy. I already make so many decisions for them and control so much of their lives, I don't think ceding a little authority in those matters is a big deal. AND, I am worried, a little, about the perfectly put together seven year olds. What are you learning about self-worth when you have to look like Hannah Montana to feel good?

However, I hear your pain about the ways your children's independence may affect them. My short, flip answer is that that's just life, baby. That little girl was a pig, and your kids and mine should learn now to stay away from trollops like that. Oh, wait, was that too harsh?

No, seriously, let them be and know that somewhere in the Chicago suburbs there are two similarly strangely dressed children with messy hair.
Melissa said…
It's easier for me (with clothes anyway)since I have boys, but I can tell you that others do not have patience for quirky, whatever its form. Some people embrace it, others, well, you know. And sometimes that quirky gets in the way of how they are perceived. Which is sad. I'm pretty lucky to live in a town (Austin) which pretty much worships quirky, but the neighborhood in which I live (Stepford) Does Not Approve. Sigh...

It's so hard to walk that line between being yourself and fitting in, and teaching a kid that concept is even harder. Thanks for the post. Even if it means I have to come up with my own topic today. :) Which actually will piggy back this one a little bit...
Anonymous said…
I don't know, Julie. Fiona has very strong ideas about her clothes, and she prefers to dress very formally, very girlish. She chides me on my quirky appearance.
Anonymous said…
I think Patience will let you know when she is ready to fit in. In the meantime, I think you're doing a great job. What else can you do? Tell her that she's not ok already?

It's tough, though.

Anonymous said…
Seems to me that your daughter is pretty aware. Aware of what she likes. Aware of what the consequences are for her dress. And aware that she's not terribly concerned with what others think.

As long as you keep having the conversations you're having with her, she'll work it all through for herself.
S said…
I think you're a fantastic mom, doing it just right, and I wouldn't change a thing.

My boys, they don't care what they wear, and never have. Why IS that, anyway?
Anonymous said…
That little girl was a snot. ick.

We do the same in our house with our 2 girls, 3 and 6. I let them choose whatever they want. If they want to wear shorts with leggings and snowboots and a tutu, fine. Whatever. Self-esteem over fashion is my motto and I loudly say it to anyone within earshot. I also let them walk around with their shoes on the wrong feet and tell naysayers that "she did it ALL by herself."

what an awesome mom you are.
Kyla said…
Ohhh, those mean girls. It starts YOUNG, doesn't it? Arg.

And Julie, dear, your girls ARE adorable. Lovely both. And smart to boot.

BubTar hasn't cared for a minute what he wears. At school, it is uniforms, of course, but at home I can just toss him clothes and say "Put 'em on." He doesn't want to pick his clothes. I try and involve him with the choosing process, "At least tell me pants or shorts?" or "What color shirt?" or "Jersey or jean shorts?" something. But he really doesn't care.

KayTar, well, we've left the house on several occasions in post-Halloween pirate garb. And we're okay with that. ;) If she feels strongly enough about it to make her requests known (which isn't always easy for her) then we respect it.

I think you are doing well with her, Julie. Very thoughtful and kind. The group think/peer pressure vibe comes soon enough and as long as you can stave it off and encourage that freedom of self, do it. Mean girls be damned. ;)
Liv said…
First, I want you to know that you handled every bit of each situation beautifully. My little person does not yet choose her own clothes, but she is starting to get notions of how she wants to look at 27 months. She chooses her own shoes--matching or not. She presents me with child size jewelry to make her "pitty" and rummages through my cosmetics. I think it's a hard line to walk between giving them creative self expression and reminding them of societal pressure. It stinks that there have to be consequences to wardrobing choices because of others' norms and mores.
thailandchani said…
I think you are doing it just right. Clothes are a non-threatening way to be an individual and I'm so glad you don't try to cram your little girls into some proscribed box.

Let it rip! :)
we_be_toys said…
Honey, I'm with you - they should be able to dress themselves. I buy the clothes (I have boys, see.)but they decide how to wear them.
While I can completely believe how vile that prissy little girl was, I am more appalled that her evidently equally vile parent didn't think to curb her ugly manners. Seems to me, that her behavior completely negates her outward appearance - pretty is as pretty does, I say, and she was hideous.
btw, I love mis-matched, too small clothes, that don't always match - work it girls!
Mayberry said…
Good for Patience -- "I let it roll off my back."

Wish she could play with my mismatched 5 year old!
Mary Jo Koch said…
I have four grown daughter, 34 to 25, so I hope I have some perspective on this. Like you, my girls basically made their clothes decisions after age 2. My major rule was no long dresses and patent leather shoes on the 10-foot climbing structure outside our apartment. Sometimes I want to post a sign on them, "I am not responsible for these girls' appearance." Daughter 2 only wore dresses from age 2 to 7. Then starting on the day her youngest sister was baptized, she would only wear pants for 5 years. My daughter would only wear purple for 2 years; fortunately her aunts indulged her.

They were their own critics. Sometimes I questioned myself, but I became sure I was right when they were teenagers. I am proud to boast that I never had an argument with a daughter in a department store.

All of them developed their own style; none of them ever dressed like a slut. For the last ten years, their clothes choices are much better than mine. They all look lovely.

I fought too many battles that I should have known better to fight. I am so thankful I avoided the clothes battle.
Anonymous said…
We struggle with this a bunch with Zachary. He is of course younger, so not as much an issue yet.

I think she will learn from the other children's comments that she does get perceived that way. There is nothing you can do to stop that, and it is probably a good thing to learn some social norms. But, it is their job to teach her that, not yours. You need to teach her to be herself, that you trust her to express herself, and that looks are unimportant.

You know, to counteract ALL she will hear to the contrary.

Emily R
thordora said…
I WAS the freak when it came to clothing for the longest time, and in some ways, still am.

While I might make a comment if the outfit is hideous (the things my daughter does with stripes) the social bit-she needs to learn that. No matter what she wears, at some point it won't be right. it's part of growing up.

Being accepted by you for how she chooses to be is FAR more important. YOU will give her the confidence to tell the "perfect" girls of the world where to take their ugly crap.

I never fit in, and have a fair idea that at least one of my kids won't either-I'd rather revel in who they really are then try and make them conform. They'll learn that soon enough.
Space Mom said…
Our morning conversations:

"S- Honey, I can't let you out of the house like that."
"well, it is 7 degrees out and your arms will get cold with just a tank top on"
"how about a Long sleeved shirt?"

OR -
"um, stripes and polka dots are kind of hard to look at together"
"I don't care, it's what I want"

I think you did fine. I figure as long as it isn't disrespectful or self deprecating, let her wear it.
Suz said…
I have boys, so it might be a little easier for me. Nevertheless, like you, it's starting early. Ty-baby kicked and cried when I tried to put a pair of tan cords on him today - the blue ones, however, were fine. I anticipated this, figuring that I might as well dress them the way I wanted to while I could and also knowing that this wouldn't be for long.

I'm a fashion junkie. I sew (not well enough), read fashion mags, and watch Project Runway obsessively. It's taught me that beauty is often in the eye of the beholder and that the strongest designers have the courage of their convictions, even the courage to make mistakes. I love what you're teaching your girls. They will face critism eventually, even if you do lay out their clothes. By teaching them some basic rules and letting them go it alone, you're letting them develop their own style and defend it. Knowing how to say "that's your opinion" and let it go will serve them well for a very, very long time.
b*babbler said…
Hmm... this is a really interesting post, as it isn't something I've had to deal with yet (Peanut only being 14 months old, and definitely not interested in picking out her clothes).

I definitely agree with your sentiments, but at the same time I was that quirky child in school (not through my own choices, but rather a result of being raised by an aging grandparent and not enough money). I'm not sure I could handle having my daughter feel the sting of words that I felt, even if they do roll off their backs.

Good for you for not giving the other little girl any more attention. You are a stronger person than I am, cause I'm not sure what I would have done if someone had so deliberately said something like that, and right under my nose no less.
cinnamon gurl said…
I can't help but think that that nasty girl has obviously heard that message herself.

I think you're doing just great. Of all the things to do battle with your kids on, clothes is last of the list for me. And it does provide good opportunities to reinforce the message that one's self-worth comes from within...
jeanie said…
I think the biggest Mummy indicator in the whole story you related was how your daughter handled the mean words - absolutely brilliantly.

My daughter wears prints with stripes with plains that never match. It is her - once I told her about colour matching and we had a week where everything "nearly" matched in an almost try-hard fashion.

But then, V also wore red plaid with grey stripes and still laughs at me "giving HIM fashion advice" - you choose your battles.

Occasionally, if there are things that are TOO tatty or weather-wise a big mistake I will offer an opinion, but on the whole it is a good one for them to control - there is a heap of other territory.

What is most sad, really, is the other little girl. How hard and brittle will her heart become with that coming out of her mouth at 5?
Kat said…
Perhaps God gave me all boys for a reason. I'm not sure I could handle all the heartbreak little girls have to endure at the hand (or mouth) of other little girls. Ouch. Girls are so harsh.
You handled it like a complete pro. Honestly, I have no idea what I would have done.
You are doing an amazing job with your girls.
Nicole Pelton said…
I too have boys, which are a little easier. I pick out clothes that match when the ask, then they usually swith to their favorite black and yellow cars shirt with red and blue pants.

But seriously, I think what you are doing in the right approach. My family had very little fashion sense, and my mom just didn't think looking all perfect and put together was important. We looked back on my class pictures and I was the one with messy and uneven hair versus the adorable and perfect little pony tails. They have to deal with these comments at some point (dress or whatever) and it's totally great that she's learning to handle it, and I truly think your kids will end up happier than that little girl.
Anonymous said…
I think it is wonderful that you allow your daughter to choose her own clothing and to face the consequences (positive or not so) of that choice. Better that, I say, than you are combing her hair into a neat clip and skipping off to Abercrombie and Fitch. We're having similar conversations in our house this week--about being who you are regardless of what other people might think about that. It's not easy, but as someone who was raised to keep quiet, do what I was told, and by all means MATCH...I think it's better to give my kids experiences that require them to exercise a bit of courage rather than hiding in fear behind a perfect facade.
painted maypole said…
i think how you handled the situation in the store is fantastic. FANTASTIC. i'm proud of you.
I think you handled it well.

And if it's any comfort, I don't have catalog children either.

I'll admit to cringing when Daughter wore her grubby summery sandals with heavy socks in the dead of winter, but ... I let her wear them.
Annie said…
Had I been there I think I would have like to have given you and and your daughter a round of applause in Target!

Miss E hates anything in her hair for long either, but she's getting better.

Who wants to raise pageant princesses? You are doing a GREAT job!

Miss E could care less what I put on her each day - I'm kind of grateful for that.
Rebecca said…
When my son was about 4, his fashion choices dictated pink tights, a black mesh muscle shirt and black rubber boots. Then he went through a phase where he wore 7 shirts at once.

I remember those times fondly - he's now 22 and a Navy pilot. The clothes thing didn't hurt him a bit and gave him a chance to express himself.

He got some comments - especially on the tights/muscle shirt days, but it was what he wanted.

Blessed be! Life is good.
Magpie said…
Oh the mean girl - ugh - it starts early.

Mine dresses herself every morning too. Sometimes there are battles, like today when I told her she had to wear a skirt with tights and a shirt. Eventually she consented to wear the skirt that was in the pile of dirty laundry.

Often she does the very very mismatched thing - the other day, it was a striped shirt, a plaid skirt, and flowered leggings. But they were all blue!

I do believe she'd get along with yours just fine.
Michele said…
For what's it worth, I think you are doing the right thing. Zoe is only 18 months old so we haven't faced the her dressing herself thing but I truly believe kids should be allowed to have control over some things in their life and in my mind, clothes are not something to fight over. Who cares how they dress at this age. It won't be long before they feel the pressure to comply because other children like that mean little girl at Target force them to. Why not let them learn and grow and be as creative as possible until then ... because maybe some or a lot of that creativity will stick with them throughout their lives.
Whirlwind said…
My girls are the same way and although it used to drive me nuts, I realized it wasn't worth battling them over. And they have gained confidence and independence. I like they they have learned that they don't have to conform to society - that they can be who they want to be!

Unfortunately they go to private school, so once the hit first grade (the oldest is there now) they wear uniforms.

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