I received this question from a mom recently….
My four year old son fights with me about what he can wear. I try to give him autonomy with his wardrobe, but he often wants to dress in a way that would be inappropriate such as wearing multiple pairs of pants. We end up getting into a big fight about it that ends in tears for both of us. It makes us both feel horrible. What should I do?
Thanks for your question. It sounds like your son may be trying to find his style while also wanting to gain control over this aspect of his life.
At the same time that it is important to allow your son some autonomy and creativity in the way he dresses, at this age it is also important that you feel comfortable with how he does this and that he understands that you are in control.
The first thing I suggest is to explore why this makes you uncomfortable. There is often a fine line with how we approach creativity and being outside the box. We want to honor our children’s choices while we listen to our maternal instincts. Are you afraid he will be teased? Are you concerned you will be embarrassed? Do you think other people will judge you as a mom? Your approach will become clearer after figuring out why you are uncomfortable with his desire to dress differently.
If you decide this is something you still want to change, I suggest discussing the situation the day after an incident has happened. During the incident is not the time to try to influence your child. It is difficult for anyone to listen when they are upset.
Discussing the incident later will allow you to conserve your energy and be more compassionate and thoughtful in your response. This is the time to deescalate your son by remaining calm, being consistent and offering support such as reminding him of the expectations in your family for behavior and reminding him that you know he can make good choices.
If his behaviors escalate, you can discuss consequences for unacceptable behaviors such as hitting or yelling (depending on the rules in your family) AFTER he becomes fully calm. The most important thing is for you to remain calm during this whole process. He will be taking cues from you. Being in control means acting like you are in control.
I recommend discussing the whole incident with him the next day. This space allows both of you some distance and time for reflection. The fact that you bring it up later will show your son that the topic is important. He will be much more likely to listen and you will be much more likely to communicate effectively while you are calm and not engaged in a power struggle.
Speaking to him in a soft, loving way can create trust and have more influence on his behaviors. This is the time to let your son know how you feel, offer better ways for him to express his feelings and role model appropriate ways for him to respond.
You do not necessarily need to explain why he cannot do something. You can lean on your authority and simply say it is not aloud. If he asks “why?” you can simply restate that it is not aloud as many times as necessary without answering the question. I call this the “broken record technique” which is the topic of the next blog post.
This issue will most likely arise again even after speaking to him in this direct and compassionate way. Be prepared for this and simply repeat the same approach. This will teach him that you are still invested and still taking this issue seriously. Even if the issue seems resolved, it can be extremely helpful to follow up with a conversation about how he is doing with the issue. This helps to reinforce the positive changes.
Finding some way to allow your son to express his creative style can be a fun way for you to bond. This exercise is less about compromise on your part and more about showing him your boundary with his clothing choices.
There is value and balance in allowing your son’s true personality shine, however, you as the parent should always feel in control. This helps children feel safe and secure which is much more important to them than getting what they want in the moment. The key to this approach is to avoid teaching while you are in a power struggle with your son. You deserve to get more out of the energy you are putting forth!