Little girls and their pretty dresses: Teaching modesty without inducing guilt
Dear Kerry, My little girl Frances is 4 and she loves to wear dresses, but she also loves to pull them up. I've been having a hard time wording why we keep our dresses down in a way that makes sense to her, while at the same time trying to preserve the very comfortable feeling she has with her own body. I'm also unsure how often to bring it up, because it seems to happen a lot. Recently I just started having her wear shorts underneath, so I'm wondering if I should just drop it altogether. Do you have any suggestions? NA, Ann Arbor
Dear NA, You are so clearly expressing a familiar dilemma for parents - we want to give children the freedom and comfort of being unself-conscious little kids while also teaching them social attitudes and behaviors. Sometimes those two goals feel in conflict. When we add in issues of body, nudity and privacy it can get even more loaded. That takes us back to your original question and its implications: does keeping something covered mean that it has to be hidden? Does that imply that there is something bad or wrong about it? And will that implication change Frances’ pleasure and pride in her body?
Your practical solution of the shorts sounds very sensible, as it deals with the underpants part of the problem for now. But most little girls I know also like to pull up their dresses to show their tummies. “Look, I have a tummy just like Mommy does. She can carry a baby in her tummy and I want to too!”
A couple of important strands in development converge for kids around 4. One is the sense of body ownership they have been building since babyhood. When your infant first uses her eyes to discover her feet waving in front of her face, she doesn’t realize those things are part of her own body. But when she reaches a few weeks later and grabs them - “Wow! I can see them, feel them with my hands and in my feet, and maybe in my mouth - they’re all connected!” There are lots of steps in this development, including the big one of toilet mastery, which really gives a sense of pride and being in charge of their own bodies. Parents can connect privacy with the good feeling of owning one’s body by modeling comfortable modesty, and gently suggesting “Your body is just for you.” owning your own body gets connected with owning your own self, another pretty important step.
Preschoolers are very good at differences. They are busy all the time figuring out categories, working out what goes with what and comparing. Body differences are particularly fascinating, as they try to understand about boys and girls, men and women, children and grownups. The first question people ask about new babies is whether it’s a girl or a boy; this is a very important difference in most cultures. Children pick this up and take it in. They identify themselves as boys or girls, owning a male or female self.
Kids also want to be like grownups, especially in the realm of being in charge of themselves. Most little kids’ play involves imitating adult roles. Just as most moms nowadays often wear pants, most modern parents dress their little girls in pants and shorts, as much or more than in dresses. And yet most 3- and 4-year-old girls want to wear dresses! I think this impulse is connected to establishing good feelings about their femininity, demonstrating that they are happy to be a girl. This is when the strands of ownership of the body and gender identity come together in the minds of most kids.
Four-year-olds also have to come to terms with the reality that they are still kids, not able to be in charge of things the way grownups are, and not yet able to have a baby. But they do want to celebrate what they have now; they want to enjoy being a darling little girl in a pretty dress, with a lovely girl’s body! In a year or so, the pink and purple phase will pass, Frances will again enjoy wearing a range of clothes, and she will keep her body more private, as outside interests take on greater importance.
Kerry Kelly Novick is a local child, adolescent and adult psychoanalyst, affiliated with the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute and the Michigan Psychoanalytic Council, and is a founder of Allen Creek Preschool. You can reach her through