Should parents insist that kids bundle up when it's cold outside?
Dear Kerry, I am getting very frustrated and I also realized that I get worried when my kids won’t wear clothes that are appropriate for the weather. When it’s wintertime, they don’t want to wear mittens and coats, and they sometimes insist on long sleeves in the summer. I’m afraid they will get sick if they get too cold, or will overheat when it’s hot. How can I get them to put on the clothes that I know suit the temperature? DS, Minneapolis
My very wise niece remarked when she was six, “Children wear sweaters when moms are cold.” She was putting her finger on the problem - we know what the temperature means and have experience of what keeps us comfortable in all weathers. So we feel we ought to be able to guide children to wear the right clothes. But children don’t necessarily agree, and each person feels the cold and the heat differently. Often you can tell in infancy whether you will have a ‘hot kid’ or an 'ice baby.' Some babies sweat right through their onesies; others sleep better with a very warm sleepsack. Our challenge is to respect their individual differences as well as teaching them how to know themselves and take good care of themselves.
With extremes of temperature, there is health and safety involved. We can’t let a little child risk hypothermia or heatstroke! But most of the time, we are operating in the middle zone, although here in Michigan that zone may range over 60 degrees. So we have lots of experience in the Midwest that may apply in other places, and lots of ideas of how to help children learn to make good judgments in their self-care.
Like so many issues in childrearing, there are three main dimensions that affect this area. There is your overall parenting stance - how do you share responsibility with your child? What is your comfort zone for letting your child decide whether to wear a tutu to school or forbidding it? Second is the role of teaching your child how to make judgments - when do you start and what is your teaching method? And third is how you decide when there is no question and you are in charge.
If you have sorted out your parenting stance in general and feel comfortable with the idea of a growing partnership with your child, you can move right into how to teach your child to take good care of herself in the realm of clothes and weather. From the time she is a baby or toddler, you can look out the window and talk about the weather: “Oh look it’s all gray and rainy. I’ll put my rain hat on and we’ll put the cover on your stroller.” And you will be setting an example, commentating in words as you do it, of what you put on when it’s that particular kind of weather. There are also lots of books about the seasons that allow for chatting about what the people are wearing in the pictures, which is an additional way to learn the idea of what goes with what weather.
If we are imposing our own experience on kids, it’s almost guaranteed to evoke some protest or resistance. For the youngest ones, wanting to be in charge of their bodies can feel like life or death, and then we can get the screaming, arched-back, tantrum over jackets that we are all familiar with from toddlers when we are trying to leave the house. For older preschoolers or schoolkids, we risk undermining their growing autonomy and responsibility for themselves if we nag or take over what they wear, defining ourselves as knowing better than they do how they feel.
At Allen Creek Preschool, the children and teachers sing a song each day before outside time. They sing “What’s the weather - is it raining, is it sunny, is it snowing, is it gray?” After they all look out the window and figure out the answer, they talk about what outdoor clothes go with that weather. By the time they are three or four, they are pretty consistently right about what will make them comfortable to play outside. But there is a crucial ingredient in the mix. Teachers respect children’s choices according to their individual selves, for instance, suggesting that a child can take off his jacket outside if he finds he’s too warm. If you are raising your child to make her own choices, think about choosing a daycare or school that doesn’t automatically zip all the kids into their clothes in an assembly line, but takes the time to help them learn.
4-year-old Robbie’s mother, when he stated very definitely that he would not put on his jacket to leave school, remarked calmly, “Well, it felt pretty cold to me in the parking lot, so I’ll carry your jacket for you and you can see if you want it when we get outside.” She was sharing her experience, but acknowledging that Robbie might feel differently, and offering him the chance to make his own choice. She was also recognizing that a 4-year-old would find it pretty hard, when he’s inside the nice warm building, to imagine how cold he may be in a few minutes.
Unless your child is exposed to extremes over an extended time, which might fatigue her to the point of lowering her immune system defenses, cold won’t give her a cold and heat demands only occasional rests and a good amount of water to drink. Periodic “drink breaks” or (fruit juice) “popsicle breaks” and a story in the shade on a hot afternoon will accustom your children to alternating activity with rest and hydrating - they will develop good habits without even realizing that they are taking in life lessons. Having fun with you in the snow, building snowmen, pulling the sleds up the hill, or cross-country skiing, will motivate your child to dress for enjoyment of the activity.
Enjoy all the seasons with your children, making sure that you show them you take care of your own comfort, and they will reward you by becoming sensible for themselves!
Kerry Kelly Novick is a local psychoanalyst and a family consultant at Allen Creek Preschool. You can reach her through AllenCreek.org, or you can email her your comments and questions for future columns.