Whether your child is 4 years old or 14, chances are you’ve had a few fights about clothes. Maybe your son wants to wear his Superman cape to kindergarten, or your daughter insists on buying tops in garish colors. Whatever the cause, it can be draining if you and your child are clashing frequently—especially if it’s happening first thing in the morning or delaying the bedtime routine.
Carleton Kendrick, a social worker and family therapist, has another perspective for parents: Think critically and carefully about what’s behind the disagreement. If the wardrobe choice doesn’t create a health issue or isn’t in conflict with your family’s core values, you might be better off just letting it go.
In other words, pick your battles; there will probably be plenty of times when you and your child disagree over clothing, so save the big guns for those times it really matters.
Kendrick says many common battles between parents and kids are about clothing choices that, in the parents’ eyes, don’t match or just look silly. “Some of these conflicts are rooted in the parents’ choices of how they dress, and the perceived rejection of that if the child dresses a different way,” he explains. “A child’s need to dress himself is part of their growing sense of autonomy that needs to be listened to and respected.”
As the parent, you have a lot of say about how your child presents himself. To help figure out whether a potential disagreement over fashion should be treated as a more important conflict, here are some key questions you can think about.
Is my child’s safety or health at risk? It makes sense to keep young girls from wearing extremely high platform shoes or boys from wearing baggy jeans that might get snagged in a bicycle chain.
Is the clothing itself really the problem, or is it a symptom of something else? Perhaps it’s difficult to see your kids growing up so fast, Kendrick says, or their clothing choices are a kind of rebellion. Some parents may also find it difficult to handle “pushback” from their children over questions of control.
Are my objections really just a style preference? You can’t stand stirrup pants, but your daughter loves them because they stay tucked into her socks. Fluorescent green—your son’s favorite color—makes your eyes hurt. Or, really, a mullet hairdo? Come on.
Is my main concern what other people think? This hits a visceral spot for moms and dads, who might worry that others will view them as a bad parent based on how their child looks; instead, remind yourself that it is important to your child. “Obviously my child cares about this. He or she put on the clothes,” Kendrick says.
Is the clothing inappropriate for the setting or activity? There may be nothing inherently wrong with your child’s favorite pair of sweatpants; on the other hand, wearing them to school if they violate the dress code might be a concern. Similarly, if today is arts and crafts day, then the frilly princess dress may not be the best option.
Are my child’s clothes in violation of our family’s “rules”? “It comes under ‘What does our family stand for?’ ” Kendrick says. “‘Am I [the parent] being asked to compromise and/or ignore my own beliefs?’ ” That might mean inappropriate language printed on a T-shirt, for instance, but it should be separated out from the larger issue of style.
Do the benefits my child sees in dressing this way outweigh the negatives that I see? “For that to be answered, you really need to put yourself in your child’s emotional shoes,” Kendrick says. “Knowing [your child] as you do, do the pluses outweigh your perceived negatives?”
“Before we even say ‘This is a conflict,’ the parent needs to ask, ‘Why am I so bothered by this?’ ” Kendrick says. “In the long run, not just this weekend, this will foster, maintain, and nurture the relationship with your child.”
The most important part of any parent-child conversation (about fashion, music, or anything else) is to ask open-ended, nonjudgmental questions. Keep the focus on the style and its appeal rather than on your child. And above all, don’t forget those times your own parents thought your style choices looked silly—they might even have a few pictures to prove it.
Common Fashion Fights
“Message” / Image Tees
“If any words or graphics represented do not represent the values that your family holds, then you have every right as a parent not to allow your child to wear that,” Kendrick says. But, he adds, “I always think it’s nice to offer a plan B. ‘It can’t be this, but let’s see what it can be.’ ” In this case, you might look for tops that are similar in overall aesthetic or style—rhinestones, rock band, etc.—that don’t have the offensive images or language.
If jeans with frayed edges and torn sections just aren’t your thing, consider asking your child to save up to purchase that item on her own. To address concerns of modesty, look for a pair of jeans that has its tears and rips in less provocative spots, such as right above or below the knee. For issues about the jeans being appropriate for the setting or activity, you could suggest that your child bring the pants along and change into them afterward; but, it might also be a matter of your child just accepting that it’s the wrong time, wrong place to wear them—for example, if it violates a family rule to “show the appropriate respect for who you’re with and who you’re visiting,” Kendrick says.
Because there is little health risk involved in experimenting with haircuts and hairstyles, Kendrick thinks it’s OK to give kids relatively free reign. “But that does not mean parents are prohibited from expressing their lack of support,” he says. “It is not unkind to say what your opinion is about the response they’ll get...or, ‘I think there are different ways to wear your hair or to color your hair that would be more appealing for you.’ ” The key to making this stance work, however, is to share your opinion once, then let it go unless your child brings it up again.
Choosing What Fits Well
Parents should draw the line at clothes that are tight enough or so extremely baggy that they raise issues of modesty. If the concern is more about how flattering the fit is, however, Kendrick suggests discussing what your child likes about the item in a tone of voice akin to asking “What would you like for dinner?” For example: “That’s a very tight top on you. What about that top do you like?” or “I think that top, in a less tight style, would be more appealing.” For garments that are too revealing, one popular compromise is layering—a short skirt or dress can be worn over leggings, for instance, and a low-cut or strappy tank can be combined with another tank or top underneath.