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You want your child to look nice: coordinated colors, well-cared-for clothes that fit well, that sort of thing. But your preschooler wants to pick his own clothes – and his combinations and obsessions are odd, to put it nicely. The favorite shirt – a couple sizes too small – that he pulled out from under the bed and put on inside out. The striped pants he paired with a clashing shirt. The shorts in the winter time. The sweater in summer.

If your child looks like she dressed out of the lost-and-found box at her child care center and if this bothers you… you’re not alone! What can you do?

First, apply some perspective. Style is personal and despite your close connection, your child is not you and doesn’t even represent you. I understand you might think this is silly. You might believe that your child is indeed a walking advertisement for your parenting skills and your fashion acumen. But, believe me, the sooner you give up these notions the happier both of you will be. Your child is her own person whose individuality will only increase. Start practicing a bemused shrug now so you’ve got it down before she hits middle school.

Second, all the clothes in your child’s closet and dresser should pass two tests: comfort and durability. Comfort comes first, since the preschooler who isn’t bothered by tight sleeves and itchy tags is less irritable himself. Preschoolers often insist on dressing themselves, so make certain that the clothes he has access to are easy to put on and with simple fastenings, especially for frequently-removed bits like pants waistbands. You want using the toilet to be unencumbered by zippers and snaps.

If your child is bothered by tags, cut them out. The impulse to retain tags so some future parent (or you with a future child) can know what size this item is sacrifices a child’s present comfort for an adult’s future convenience. This isn’t a fair trade-off.

Children grow fast and it’s hard to keep up with sizes. But all a child’s clothing should be roomy enough for active play without being so overlarge that the kid trips over his pants legs or can’t find his fingers in the sleeves. A larger problem is retiring favorite clothes when they’ve become too small: sometimes children have trouble giving up the clothes they like the best. Maybe these can become garments for a big stuffed bear or can be given away successfully. Sometimes these garments just need to quietly disappear.

Durability is the next requirement your child’s clothes have to meet. Your child’s everyday clothing should be unfussy, easy to wash and not needing any ironing at all. Because children are hard on clothes – getting them muddy, dripping spaghetti sauce on them, coloring them with markers and paint – what they wear to childcare or preschool should represent as low an investment as possible. If you have clothes you treasure and want to keep looking nice, put these out of sight and dress your child up for special occasions. It’s not fair to let a child wear something you love and then get angry when she inevitably ruins it. Smart parents shop for kids’ everyday clothes second-hand. Smart parents also find special occasions to wear those fancy duds before a child outgrows them!

Finally, pick your battles. Set limits only based on practical concerns, like the weather or the sort of activities planned for the day. Slippers that are fun to wear to the grocery store might not be the best for running around the playground. Stock the dresser and closet sensibly so everything a child can see is okay for everyday use.

Then step back and enjoy. Remember that dressing a child is not a competitive sport. There’s no need to apologize for the goofy outfit your child is wearing because everyone knows your child dressed herself. You and her teacher and passersby on the sidewalk can enjoy her style and appreciate what this says about what she likes and how comfortable she is just being herself.

That is the true reflection on your parenting… your courage and the pleasure in letting your child be who he is and dress the part!

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.