Suddenly my child is clothes-conscious. What happened?

“Cool! Awesome! Can I buy this shirt? All the kids at school wear this kind.”

As boys and girls reach the middle elementary years, they define themselves more and more by the clothes they wear. It’s not unusual for them to have strong preferences for certain styles and colors. They copy what their peers and older siblings wear and they pick up messages from TV, magazines, movies, store displays—even dolls dressed in the latest fashions. Because clothing sales are big business, retailers and manufacturers bombard consumers with images of contemporary styles, and kids can’t help but be influenced.

A child most often wants to wear what other children wear. If she looks too different she may feel vulnerable or threatened and may be teased. Parents, too, sometimes prefer their child to dress as her friends do. Looking like the rest of the group gives a sense of belonging.

Children’s style preferences vary; what’s popular in one city or school or neighborhood may not be in another. Some children like conservative looks, some prefer only up-to-date fashions, and others just care about specifics such as shoes or jewelry. The intensity of a child’s clothes-consciousness varies also, from caring a little to caring a lot. Most young children are too absorbed in friends, schoolwork, hobbies and after-school activities to make clothing a major preoccupation.

However, a child’s opinions about clothes can be strong enough to cause conflict. On the one hand, parents want to buy clothes that please their child, but they’re also frustrated if she wants items they find unappealing or expensive. Shopping becomes difficult because it’s hard for them to know what will fit or look good on her, and if she’d like their selections. Most parents have had the experience of picking something out and bringing it home to their child, only to have it hang in the closet unused. To avoid such waste, many parents take their child along on shopping trips. This, of course, leads to other problems. Children often dread shopping and trying on clothes. They act angry, bored, or silly, and find it hard to stick to the task.

You can ease many clothing conflicts by offering your child some choices, involving her in the process of choosing what to get, and preparing her for shopping trips. For instance, before you go to a store, tell her what she can get and how much you’re willing to spend. That way you and she will have similar expectations. Once you’re shopping, have her help hunt through the racks for sizes or colors: “See if you can find a sweater with green in it to go with the pants you like.” Let her make some decisions: “You can get this shirt for twenty dollars or you can get two shirts for ten dollars each.” If she picks an item you don’t like, suggest a modification: “Let’s look for something with a smaller design on the front.”

If she’s firm about wanting only current fashions, you can either avoid arguments by buying some of what she likes as long as you find it appropriate, or you can initiate a compromise. Suggest she pick out pants while you pick out the top. Let her choose a wild sweater and a plain skirt to go with it. Have her pick the styles, and you select the colors. (Fashionable clothes often look far less outrageous in muted colors.) You also can encourage her to concentrate on accessories such as bracelets and hair bands. If she gets some of the clothes she wants, she’ll have an easier time accepting your refusal to buy items you can’t tolerate.

Keeping the cost of children’s clothing down is always important. If your child wants a particular style, look for affordable versions at department or discount stores. A six- to nine-year-old doesn’t care about cost, only about having a certain look. At times, if she wants something you consider too expensive, offer to pay half while she pays the rest out of her allowance.

In addition to cost, consider the practicality of your child’s clothing. Since she needs to run around and explore, don’t buy play clothes that are delicate or hard to clean.

If you are having frequent arguments about clothing, step back and think about the issue. Excessive clothes-consciousness can be the result of power struggles in which parents won’t let their children participate in decision-making and children feel they can’t give in. Instead of getting locked in a battle of wills, considers child’s opinions and remember that she, like you, just wants to dress in a way that’s physically and emotionally comfortable. If you constantly argue about buying decisions, she will continue to focus on clothes. But if you allow her to help choose which to buy, you let her know she’s competent and capable of making some decisions for herself. You may sometimes be giving in, but you will be diffusing the issue of clothes-consciousness and helping your child gain self-confidence.

Picture credit: Google