IdentityPoliticsRace, Ethnicity & Culture

What a Kid Wears? Not Our Business

My sons started showing style preferences when they were about 18 months old. I started out offering them a choice between two items of clothing. Because they weren’t quite verbal yet, they grabbed the one they want to wear, and flipped out if I insisted on the one they didn’t.

Now that they are two, my rules for their clothing are simple: it has to fit the weather and activity. No freezing to death or dying of heat stroke on my watch. But otherwise, wear what you want kid.

I worried at first that they would suffer from over choice, but they delight in going to their dresser (really just a set of clear plastic drawers) and getting out clothes, or letting me pick but swapping out parts they prefer.

One afternoon, one of my sons grabbed a pink coat at playgroup instead of his blue one and had a meltdown when he could not wear it. It hit me that I had never given him a pink coat option, a skirt, or tights and the realization struck that I was part of a greater problem.

Their first significant encounter with gender stereotype wasn’t coming from a stranger or peers, but had been coming from me all along. They had been limited by my ideas of what they could wear as boys.

There’s nothing like discovering that you’re the problem to knock aside all kinds of parenting smugness. So, now they get more options to wear.

One child makes his choices based on texture. Leggings from the girls’ section rarely have the cuff around the bottom that boys pajama leggings have, which means no irritating seam mid-calf only the comfort he prefers. He loves crinkly tulle, or the shiny cool feel of polka dots. plus, they make girls’ tights lined with fleece or faux fur, but not boys, and given the choice, who wouldn’t prefer fleece or soft furriness?

For the other son, it’s all about the way fabric moves and spins. He likes to wear my jackets and hoodies so the sleeves touch the floor and the torso fabric drapes around his toes. His favorite thing to do is stomp around in a pair of light up pink shoes I found at Goodwill, and spin and swoop around while the fabric follows.

Right now, when they rock their self-chosen outfits that only make sense to them, people sometimes look twice or smile and comment something along the lines of “looks like someone chose his own outfit today!” But, for the most part, their design whims are indulged in silence.

I sometimes think about how much longer they’ll be able to choose their own completely independent style without getting judged, and how that age changes based on a child’s gender, race, choices, and the community in which the child lives.

screenshot of Elizabeth Louten's FB comments about the 1st daughtersHow young do girls start getting told their clothing is too slutty, too tom boyish, or too “classless” (as in the case of the first daughters this weekend)? When do black boys begin being written off as “thugs” or threatening? How much of a role does where a muslim girl lives play in whether she find herself the object of unwanted attention or bullying when she wears a hijab (or other headwear)? How old will my little boys be when people stop smiling indulgently at their non-gender conforming choices?

When do children begin to pick up on the social cues that the look they favor makes others uncomfortable or mock them? More importantly, when did people decide someone else’s clothes were any of their damn business?

This Thanksgiving, GOP staffer Elizabeth Lauten’s judgy Facebook comment about the first daughters’ attire at their father’s turkey pardoning resulted in twitter backlash, then Ms. Lauten’s mediocre apology and resignation. But much of the outcry in professional media wasn’t as much about how inappropriate it is to be judgmental about what any girl wears, but about how the president’s children should be off limits.

This misses the point a little.

It’s not that it’s not our place to judge the president’s daughters wore that day or on any other day, it’s that it’s not our place to judge what anyone’s kid wear. As long as their clothing choice does not hurt them or anyone else, it’s just not our business.

(featured image by Jesus Solana from Wikimedia)


Deek lives with her husband, twin sons and two cats in the northwest. She teaches and writes about parenting in the NICU, her experiences as a parent of micro-preemies and skeptical parenting.

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One Comment

  1. I value independence in my kids.
    This means that they were taught early how to dress themselves. From that time on their wardrobes were “theirs” with input from me as to whether this was weather appropriate or not. Though I don’t force that point either. Getting very cold or very wet once a year usually reminds them that I might have a point.*
    This leads to sometimes hilarious combinations of red-white striped dresses worn over purple leggins with green socks, as blue sweater and occasionally an orange T-shirt on top. As you said, it’s not my business. I reserve the right to veto things on more formal occasions, but I NEVER say “you have to wear this!!!!” We can always find an outfit that they like and that suits the occasion.
    This also means that at times their outfits are way more gender-conforming than I’d like them to be. I rafzhave stopped buying blue jackets. Why would I buy something that doesn’t get worn? But I try to twist and tweak things to give them more options (the perks of being crafty. I’m always astonished at how gender rules work).
    I know that my approach is driving other peole nuts. My mum in law is somebody who always took great care that her children looked “neat” and put out their stuff well into middle school, so she can’t deal well with my “I don’t give a fuck” rules. But in her defense, she had to be much more careful about her social standing. Let’s not forget that you need quite some privilege to let your kids run around like I do without running the risk of negative consequences. Nobody will assume that I neglect my kids or that they’re “white trash” because I have serious middle-class college education privilege.
    *I use a back-up system. If they’re with me I’ll pack something, or we will leave (it’s a hard but valuable lesson if you have to leave an event or place you’d truely like to be at but can’t ’cause you’re frozen stiff) depending on how much this will affect others (it’s highly unfair if three adequately dressed people have to leave a place they’d like to be at because the fourth is frozen stiff). For school and daycare I deposit extra stuff with their teachers.

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