Willow’s everyday clothing is functional. She wears items that feel soft on her skin, are generally loose and allow for easy movement, are often stretchy, and have closures that make them easy to put on without a fuss. Everything is able to go in the washer and dryer. Most items have been previously well-loved by other people’s children, so we don’t have to stress if food or bodily fluids land on them. Willow wears clothing that matches the weather and her activity level. She wears clothing that makes diaper changes as easy and as efficient as possible. She is encouraged to choose which diaper cover, pants, shirt or bib to wear. She sometimes looks as though she’s dressed for clown college, but she is comfortable, happy, and able to move and play with ease.
When discussing clothing choices for young children, my husband commented, “you wouldn’t wear your wedding dress to the gym, so why would you send your daughter to playgroups or daycare wearing Sunday clothes?”
Dress-up clothes are fine in limited quantities for photos and special occasions, but do babies and toddlers really need to wear restrictive, uncomfortable clothing every time they leave the house? I know that people love to gush over those decorative yet tight and stiff embroidered denim jeans, those scratchy polyester dresses with crinolines that make the skin crawl, those shiny little dress shoes with the rigid soles that hinder healthy foot development and are unsafe to wear while running or climbing on playground equipment… but when we force children to wear non-functional clothing, we are often taking away their physical ability to learn, play, explore and move freely. We make them uncomfortable solely for our viewing pleasure. We are treating them like little dolls instead of like human beings who deserve both respect and comfort.
While working in child care, I remember repeatedly asking a parent if she could please send appropriate play clothing with her immaculately-dressed toddler. This little girl regularly came to school wearing tight miniskirts, high-heeled knee-high boots, tight jeans, belts, etc. Her hair was always perfectly styled. She literally looked like a doll. She did not want to play in the sensory bin or finger paint because she might get her outfits dirty or wet. She couldn’t run outside with the other toddlers (and could barely walk some days) because her high heeled boots made her trip and were not allowed on our small climbing structure. She was afraid to dirty her tights by sitting in the sand box. She couldn’t use the riding toys because her skirt didn’t stretch enough to allow sufficient movement. In short, she missed out on a lot of our gross and fine motor activities, sensory play, and therefore many major learning experiences that we had to offer. But she looked ever so cute…
A few months ago Willow and I were staying at a friend’s house and playing with her two daughters. The youngest, a kindergarten student, wanted to play “dress up” with her many hats after school. Willow loves hats, so this was a fun game for everyone. We took photos and had a lot of fun. Our little friend excitedly cried out, “Here, make Willow wear this!”. I explained that we wouldn’t MAKE Willow wear the items, but would offer them to her to wear, because she “is a person, not a doll”. I also explained that we would only play this game for as long as Willow enjoyed it and was having fun. That five year old child thoughtfully considered what I said, and completely understood when it was time to stop. She independently read Willow’s cues (squirming, turning away, no longer smiling or laughing), turned to me and said, “Oh. I think she’s all done playing dress-up now”.
This kindergarten student demonstrated the kind of sensitivity, empathy and respect that I wish all people could have with preverbal children. Just because Willow doesn’t have the words to tell us to stop or that she’s uncomfortable or not enjoying something doesn’t mean that we have the right to force her to do things for our amusement or pleasure… including treating her like a doll instead of like a person.
***NOTE: Thank you so much to everyone who has taken the time to read, share, and respond to this post. I am frankly a bit overwhelmed right now, and ever so thankful to Janet Lansbury for getting the ball rolling. My follow-up musings in response to the almost 18,000 views of this post in 24 hours and the resulting flood of comments can be found in this post.***