My Daughter Is Not A Doll

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?”

Why, indeed?

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.***

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51 thoughts on “My Daughter Is Not A Doll

  1. Great blog, I couldn’t agree more! My daughter’s clothes are for her pleasure not other people’s and she really doesn’t care what she looks like, just how she feels!

  2. Yes yes yes and yes. *thumbsup*
    I cannot tell how how many jeans we got as gifts for our twins were never worn before they were too small because we wouldn’t put them on. They are just too tight for the boys to move in comfortably. Also: in our day care group the first thing the teachers do in the morning is to take off the children’s trousers (so that they only wear tights) because they can move better in them (they have underfloor heating so it’s not too cool).
    And something a lot of people don’t seem to get: children can look amazingly cute in clothes they can actually move in, if you care for that. I love my boys in hoodies or slip-over and they are supercomfy (also often chosen by them themselves).

  3. My daughters were always dressed in practical clothing and almost always given the choice. Now at 15 and 14 they both have their own individual style (admittedly sometimes not what I would choose) that reflects their personalities. I think I did a good job even though the 14 yr old could still enrol in clown school some days ! But that’s her and I love her for it 🙂

  4. My daughters are now 18 & 13.
    As small children they always had soft comfortable clothes suitable for the weather. They still choose clothing based on how the items feel. I often felt as though I were the only one dressing my children like little people and not like they were in a catalog.

  5. I love this! I stay home with my 2 year old daughter and also care for a 1 year old little boy. There are some days when we just stay in our jammies all day because it’s nice to just be comfy.The grandmother of the little boy is horrified when she picks him up and he is in pajamas.I just hate cramming those sweet,chubby baby legs into those stiff,scratchy jeans.It doesn’t make sense to hinder his movement when he is still just learning to move around on his own.I do love to dress up my daughter and 9 year old son a bit for holiday photos but even then I find something that is comfortable for them and they always have a say.

  6. im sorry. Mini skirts and high heeled boots on a toddler? Embellishing things so people will be horrified and agree with you, negated everything else you said. They don’t even make high heeled boots for toddlers. No one does that. I sure hope you don’t “make” your child wear a coat when it’s cold and strip away her freedom to make adult decisions as a baby.

    • sadly,high heeled shoes/boots for toddlers are a real thing. I am sure they are mostly made for pageants and that sort of thing but I have seen them on little girls at the playground as well.

    • You have no idea how much I wish that I was embellishing the heeled boots and miniskirts. There is a show called “Toddlers in tiaras” that you should watch sometime. I watched one episode and thought it was a joke at first. Sadly, any piece of women’s clothing can be reproduced in adorable 2T sizes, even highly sexualized ones. Willow has a few coats to choose from, thanks to generous hand me downs, and she picks her own hat and mittens to put on without a power struggle. In our home the choice is not WHETHER to wear a coat but rather which coat (or mitts or hat) to wear. Please take a look at the great work of Janet Lansbury and other RIE advocates if you are struggling to understand when (and how many) choices are developmentally appropriate for young children.

    • If only it were just her imagination! My three year old daughter just got a tiny denim miniskirt as a gift, and the more I look at it the more I think, how can anyone expect a three year old to play in this? Even with leggings under it, it would be so restrictive, she wouldn’t be able to climb, or ride her bike!
      And I have a two year old neighbor who’s constantly wearing Disney princess high heels. So, yea…

  7. Babies are people too, even though they’re so cute and tiny that it’s easy to forget. It’s fun to dress my son up like a dapper little gentleman for special occasions, but making it an everyday thing would be crazy! I always bring a comfy change of clothes for him, too. But I’m the kind of person who rips off my work clothes and puts on sweats and slippers as soon as I get in the door…

    And why why WHY do they make jeans for 9-month-olds? He can’t even bend his knees in the damn things!

    • I love this sentence, as it sums up exactly what I was thinking: ” Babies are people too, even though they’re so cute and tiny that it’s easy to forget. “

  8. I really enjoyed this, thanks for your post. I don’t have kids (yet) but am married and we are thinking about kids so I like to read & learn now. I definitely agree, and so does my mother — in lots of photos from my growing up years (early 90’s) the other little girls are in party dresses and Mary Janes, and I’m in my Hanna Andersson leggings & a t-shirt of my brother’s. And to be honest, I still looked really cute! Kids are cute on their own, no need to up the ante with fancy outfits. 🙂

  9. I feel this post is very judgmental. My child wears cute, matching clothes and she is in no way restricted. A one year old doesn’t care what they’re wearing to start with. She’s also allowed to play freely and if they get dirty, so be it. I wish people could have their own perspective without being convinced it’s the only way, or suggesting that it’s bad parenting to care how your child is dressed.

    • Thanks for your response, Luycx family. I’m always open to feedback about my writing. If you get a chance I’d love to have you share more specific examples of my word choice/phrasing that create the tone of “judgement” or somehow suggest that you or others are “bad parents”. When I wrote this piece I felt that I was sharing my thoughts and experiences as a teacher and a parent (and celebrating the respect that a friend’s child could demonstrate in interacting with my daughter) in a respectful way, but I am happy to have you elaborate further to help me craft my writing to seem less offensive/harsh.

    • She wasn’t judging anyone for “cute” clothes, but for impractical, stiff, clothing and shoes that are inappropriate for play. Please re-read the post to understand her intent. As long as your kids’ movement isn’t impeded and they’re comfortable, more power to you for also putting her in cute clothes! 🙂

  10. I’m about letting Miss J wear all the colours and I get cranky when people say she looks like a boy because she happens to be wearing blue or green or purple that day. Even her tummy mummy said she looked like her brother one day when wearing baby blue. I hope she meant their features looked similar, but the words “You look like your brother” still stung, luckily Miss J has no idea yet what was being said.

    • Ah, colour of clothing and gender stereotypes… That could be a whole other blog post! Good for you for not limiting her clothing colours! Willow is frequently mistaken for a boy if she is not wearing pink. I find that the cut of a lot of boys’ clothing really fits cloth diapered bottoms so much better, and lucky for us we had a neighbour pass down some of her son’s pants that fit perfectly!

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  12. Pingback: Comfortable Clothes | Peaceful Childhood Education
  13. “I Am My Response” by Rachel Macy Stafford

    I am my response to my child’s mismatched outfit and the crumpled report card at the bottom of her backpack.

    I am my response to my spouse who returned from the store without toilet paper but remembered the tailgate snacks.

    I am my response to my anxious parent who repeats the same worries and insists on giving me coupons I do not need.

    I am my response to my colleague with sad eyes and frequent absences.

    I am my response to my 15-minutes-late hairdresser with a sick child.

    I am my response to my neighbor with heart-heavy problems and little family support.

    I am my response to the irate driver who cut me off and made an obscene gesture in
    front of my children.

    I am my response to the waitress who got my order wrong.

    I am my response to myself when I forgot the one thing I most needed to do today.

    I am my response to spilled coffee, long lines, and middle-of-the-night wake ups.

    My responses are not perfect … they are not always ideal … I am human after all.

    But if I strive to offer responses underlined with
    grace,
    understanding,
    kindness,
    empathy,
    and care,
    That is something.
    That is something.

    Because my responses are more than just words.
    They represent
    who I am,
    who I want to be,
    and how I will someday be remembered.

    Today I will not respond perfectly. I know.
    But if I strive to communicate with hints of kindness and traces of love,
    That will be something
    That will be something
    That could mean more than words.

  14. Pingback: My child is not a doll and how we handle gender questions | Dispatches from the Castle
  15. Love this post. As an E.C.E teacher (working with under threes) I am constantly seeing little girls in gorgeous clothes that just don’t work for play but in recent years the little boys have also been similarly poorly dressed… skinny jeans that don’t stretch and constantly fall down, Dr Martin boots and baggy beanies that fall all over their faces. Don’t get me wrong I love these clothes… but let’s keep them for the special occasions the price tag warrants. Ps Do you mind if we use some of your blog for parent education, thinking of adding a link to our next newsletter?

  16. I love this. My one month old son wears cute clothes. I love dressing him in adorable, cotton outfits that are soft, loose, and comfortable. He has “jeans” made out of soft, stretchy material, and dress up clothes that are soft and comfortable. I crochet him shoes out of yarn so those are also soft. I don’t see why I should need to put him clothes that he is uncomfortable in to make him look cute.

    • Thanks for your response! I love clothing that is both adorable AND functional… Luckily, there are many choices out there that are cute and also comfy. Willow just attended a baby blessing service in a beautiful and very photogenic dress she chose from three comfy yet cute outfits–it was short enough to allow for uninhibited walking, running, crawling and climbing onto laps and furniture, stretchy enough to allow for rolling on a pile of pillows, and soft enough to be both comfy and wrinkle-free! 🙂

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