Why it’s important to let your kids dress themselves

It can be a pain in the neck, for sure, but letting your kids do their sartorial thing is a surefire way to boost their confidence, creativity and decision-making

child in a colourful tutu

Yesterday my five-year-old left the house wearing sweatpants, a skirt on top, a Minnie Mouse long sleeve tee and a faux fur vest over the top of it all. On her head? A woollen beanie with a bright pink pompom. Her feet? Unicorn socks and purple glitter shoes.

She looked, in a word, crazy. But she also looked like a five-year-old who had dressed herself. And that’s exactly what she should look like.

From the minute she could dress herself, I was adamant that my kid actually dress herself. You know – choose her clothes and put them on by herself. Because getting dressed is not just about the physical, practical act (although of course it’s about this as well, and as any parent knows, trying to get your kids out the door before work every morning is hard enough without adding another ten minutes of helping your kid get dressed). Learning to dress yourself is about building independence. It’s about nurturing creativity. It’s about figuring stuff out for yourself. And I’m all for it.

While I do give some parameters (you can’t wear flip-flops in winter, legs have to be covered if you’re going to be climbing trees, school uniforms are non-negotiable etc), I pretty much let my daughter wear what she wants. Some parents baulk at this – they don’t like seeing their kid in mismatched colors or in clothing that doesn’t necessarily “suit” the occasion. But I think it’s important. First of all, she learns – in a very safe, non-risk way – how to make decisions for herself. What kind of pants are good for scooting or riding my bike? What weight of sweater is appropriate for the cold today? Do I need a vest over my T-shirt to feel a bit warmer? Where’s my hat? They all sound like simple decisions, and that’s the point – kids aren’t great at choosing, but they need to learn. Yes, they’ll make mistakes. Sometimes they won’t be cool enough or warm enough. That’s OK (that’s when it’s your job, as a parent, to bring an extra layer). Because the next time, they’ll remember that they need to dress differently. And later on, our kids will have to make hundreds of decisions every day. Learning how and what to dress themselves in is an easy way for them to start to figure out planning and making choices.

It’s also a way for my daughter to be creative. I want her to feel free to express herself because I know how joyful that is. I love getting dressed up and feeling special in something I’ve chosen for that day – it’s such a lovely feeling to put on a special dress or pair of shoes, the kind you save for a special occasion, and strut around with the confidence of a Marvel superhero. Why would I want to take that away from her?

But really, the biggest lesson I want her to take away from this is that what you look like is not important. I don’t want to tell her what to wear – beyond limits about the weather and the activity she’s doing in those clothes – because I don’t want her to internalize the idea that what she looks like has anything to do with her value. I want her to know that she is much, much more than the sum of her parts, and I think this starts with letting her look the way she wants to look. If she wants to wear overalls with a dress on top, then that’s fine by me: by telling her that those things “don’t go” together, I’m telling her that she’s made the wrong choice, and that what she thinks looks good is wrong, and I don’t want that for her. I want her to trust that she looks good. Because right now, she does. She has the confidence of a Marvel superhero. In fact, she has the confidence of the entire Marvel superhero universe.

And that’s what I want for her: to be confident and creative and to know that what she wears is entirely her choice. The good news is, she knows that. Now, it’s her little sister’s turn. When I see my sixteen-month-old reach for her favorite vest, I can’t help but smile to myself; sure, it might be time to go to preschool, but if she’s comfy wearing her dressing gown over her romper, then so be it. It’s what being a kid is all about.