My middle son reveres the Incredible Hulk, an Avenger with whom he shares many traits, for better or worse. When my boy pled for a Hulk costume a mere two days ahead of his fifth birthday last year, I ordered the only one I could find with rush delivery, which was, in fact, a wetsuit.
Since then, my son has delightfully zipped that green spandex/polyester blend Hulk suit right up and taken to the streets many times, no curve in his figure left to the imagination. By indulging his eccentric fashion choice, am I encouraging self-expression, or do I just not want to fight the getting-dressed fight? Both, of course. I also know full well that there will come a day when neither superheroes nor the winsome magic of a costume will enchant him the same way, and that time will be here all too soon.
Who am I to say he cannot wear his Hulk costume/wetsuit to preschool, to a taekwondo birthday party, to his brother’s football game? (All of these have happened).
It’s nice to know that there is actually a scientific reason why dressing young children is such a challenge: the “autonomy versus shame and doubt” stage of development, as identified by psychologist Erik Erikson in the mid-1900s, whereby children survey the limits of their own autonomy. Take, for example, my three-year-old. He actually prefers for his shoes to be on the wrong feet. Like, why? If given free rein, he will always — every single time — find an item in his closet of utmost absurdity. I.e., the generations-old white infant slip that goes under the family baptismal gown which had been folded neatly on the top shelf of the closet so high he’d need a ladder to get it — how did he get it and why is he wearing it like a tank top with basketball shorts?
Take, also, the look of pure hatred in my baby daughter’s eye at the mere sight of a b-o-w — never speak the word aloud in her presence — at the way she senses the light weight of a clip in her hair and writhes in horror. I can already tell she’ll settle for nothing less than that system from Clueless whereby Cher swipes through every possible top and bottom before assembling an acceptable outfit. To be clear: acceptable to her and her standards. Not mine.
Maybe it’s not rocket science, but as with most parenting hurdles, this one comes down to picking battles, and better yet, avoiding battles altogether by finding a mutual respect through the yesses (see: Hulk bathing suits and baptismal slips) that won’t hurt anyone. Here are some practical tips:
- Offer choices: Do you want the blue seasonably appropriate shirt or the yellow one?
- Hear them out: You don’t want to wear the sweater, I get it. Let’s just put it in your backpack in case you get cold (which I silently know you will).
- Routine: After breakfast, we all get dressed. Let’s do this, team. If I’m feeling really wild, I may even let you pick out what I wear (within reason).
- Accommodate: You want to wear my shorts today, but those don’t fit your body. How about my socks? Pull those things up and knock yourself out.
- Prepare: When there is a special occasion like a wedding coming up, and the kids will be wearing something new/fancy, I lay it all out well in advance, let everyone look, have a good laugh, and mentally prepare themselves for a day where bargains won’t be made.
- Set aside more time: Rushing = stress. It takes little hands longer to put on their (backwards) underwear. A lot longer.
- Rewards (bribes?): If you put on this holiday outfit, I’ll give you four Skittles. I’m open to negotiations for six if you wear the knee socks, too. Listen, I know it’s all silly, and I understand if you don’t want to risk it, because you know that I love the way those knee socks look on your precious legs so much that I might just gobble you right up. That might happen, so you decide if it’s worth six Skittles (mine are usually laughing by this point, and if we’re laughing, we’re going to be okay).
For us, something cool has happened: my saying yes to the five-year-old’s Hulk bathing suit has led to his saying yes to the collared shirt and belt for, say, a piano recital or his cousin’s graduation. Giving my son that autonomy has changed the way we relate to each other in these moments: I see you, I respect you, we’re on the same team here. It’s all rainbows and butterflies — that is, until I come toward his golden curls with a hairbrush, at which point the Hulk turns green.
Hampton Williams Hofer lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she writes and raises babies. Her work has appeared in Flying South, Walter Magazine, Architectural Digest, and Food 52, among others. Family aside, her great loves are a South Carolina beach, a Roger Federer backhand, a Charlottesville lawn, and–most of all–a good story.