What Not to Wear: Toddler Edition

Why I Don’t Fight with My Toddler About Clothes

The reaction I got when I mentioned that possibly, those were pants and not a hat.

When I learned I’d be having my third girl, visions of grosgrain ribbons and matching bishop’s dresses danced through my head. How sweet! Three neat and tidy, beautiful blonde girls. Each one was impeccably dressed as a baby, thanks to two grandmas who had no other grandchildren. And then, as all children must, they each turned two.

Age two comes with personality. Picking your battles goes from a saying to a mantra. Everything, from getting in and out of the car, to taking a potty break, is a battle. Mostly because around this age, our precious babies discover that they have a say, and it seems they want to suddenly make up for two years’ worth of not using it. Clothing is a huge part of any person’s identity, so it’s natural that one part of expressing themselves is wearing what they choose to wear.

A favorite pastime is choosing clothing that resembles her favorite characters.

A common thread for my oldest is choosing clothing that resembles her favorite characters.

A big part of my parenting journey has been letting go of control where I can so that I have the energy to fight when it counts. Things that count: Staying safe. Eating healthy food. Being kind. Using the potty. Things that don’t count: Looking perfect.  Staying clean. Matching—or not matching.

Here are the things I have found helped when trying to wage the war of what to wear.

  • Give them options—but the right options. Toddlers love choices, but choices can work against you when there are too many, or not the right ones—like when they want to wear a tank top and shorts in the winter. Be diligent about putting up clothes that don’t fit, clothes that aren’t seasonally appropriate, or anything that’s not on the table for going out in public.
  • Pick out clothes the night before. Anytime we had to be somewhere on time, we picked out clothes for the next day before bed. This way we could go through all the choices we had and change our minds three times without the stress of a deadline. It also helped reinforce the idea of making a choice and sticking to it, since I did not allow changes in the morning.  That part was hard at first, but eventually she got used to the reality that her choice would stick.
  • Employ natural consequences. Kids don’t connect what they wear with weather. I can’t count how many times I tried to explain that fleece footies would be too hot to wear to bed in summer, or that you’ll be cold wearing shorts in the winter. When I could, I didn’t argue and just let her wear the item and be uncomfortable. Then when she said, “I’m hot,” or “I’m cold,” we had a chance to talk about what clothes are good for that season and what might be a better choice next time.
  • Remember that kids’ bodies don’t regulate temperature efficiently.  Sometimes you may think your child is dressing inappropriately for the weather, but it may be their body is running hot or cold. If they are over- or underdressing and not complaining, then they might just be listening to their body.


    Sometimes, it’s all about color.

  • Keep a change of clothes in the car. With toddlers, you just never know, so it’s always great to have a change of seasonally appropriate clothes stashed in your car along with a wet bag or plastic bag. Remember too, that if you’re doing an outdoor activity, weather can change quickly, so it’s always good to have an extra layer handy, even if it’s warm out.
  • Be aware of sensory issues. Some picky dressers may be driven by sensory issues such as itchy tags or seams that bug them.
  • Don’t get too comfy. My first daughter refused to wear pants—only dresses. My second? No dresses, only separates. Just when you think you have it figured out, everything will change with the next child. Consignment shops, hand-me-downs, and friends with older girls have my girls dressed without breaking the bank.
  • Embrace it. If your child loves wearing wild outfits and is constantly changing clothes, start buying dress-up outfits they can indulge in. We quickly learned that these got more use than any toys we had, and it’s been a great go-to for birthdays and holiday presents when relatives ask what they can get the girls. Plus, we have a stockpile of costume ideas every Halloween.

Since I have three girls, I have a private rule that I am not fighting about clothes until they are teenagers—when it’s really going to count. Right now, it’s about expressing themselves. If it makes them happy to wear a crazy outfit, the only thing that’s hurt is my pride. Of course I’d like to be that lady in the grocery store with the three perfectly coiffed little girls, but my three girls are very strong-willed and one way it comes out is in their clothing choices. That strong will is going to serve them very well as adults–I’d hate to squash it just so they can look like children out of a Pottery Barn catalogue. Letting them choose what they wear allows me to save my energy and my sanity for the important things.

Does your toddler like to pick out their own clothes? How do you handle clothing battles? Post your toddler’s craziest outfit in the comments!

Erin Burt is a freelance writer and mother of three girls who lives and writes in Queensbury, New York.

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