Over the course of my career, I've noticed the striking influence what children wear can have on how they feel and behave. In writing the family handbook for our playgroup this summer, I started going on for pages about why this oft-overlooked facet of mindful parenting/caregiving is actually so crucial, trying to share everything I've ever learned about the topic in a document really intended to inform families of how to pay tuition and the criteria for snow days.
Clothing is a subject I love discussing, and have a lot of opinions about. It is the most practical art form. It has the power to mediate between the self and the world--literally exposing or concealing the parts of our bodies we chose it to, and also communicating through subtle social cues the parts of ourselves we want to share. It is all tangled up with gender and culture and beliefs. Conventional fashion is also destroying our planet and exploiting people all around the world. Entering into this realm, where we have to make everyday decisions with potentially huge ripple effects, especially on behalf of our children, can feel overwhelming.
Amongst all that entanglement, the most important goal when approaching choosing clothes for your child is that they should do nothing but support the work of childhood. Keeping this purpose in mind when designing a child's wardrobe can be a wonderful guiding star in the sea of questionable choices on the part of children's clothing designers. The work of childhood is not the work of adulthood. Children's needs are really quite simple: they need to be unhindered, in every way possible. They need to be comfortable and free. To that end, try asking yourself these few questions when choosing clothes:
How well can my child move in this?
Clothing should allow for a full, comfortable range of motion--no stiff fabrics!
What will it feel like on their skin?
Much of the work of childhood comes down learning to manage all of the sensory input our bodies receive. Itchy clothes, tags or seams that scratch, and synthetics can pose a real challenge to many children (and adults!) Soft, organic, naturally dyed fibers are the gentlest choice.
How sturdy/well made is it?
We have a real clothing waste problem in this world right now, mostly stemming from the overproduction of cheap, poorly made synthetic clothing. Kids at play are especially hard on their clothes, and they grow so fast that it can seem silly to invest a lot of money in quality clothes. Consider buying fewer, better items, buying used, and finding a network of other families to share with as your children outgrow things.
Can they put it on/take it off by themself?
As children learn to get themselves dressed and use the bathroom independently, clothes that require fine motor skills beyond what they have developed can be incredibly frustrating and add an unnecessary challenge. Elastic waists and stretchy fabrics encourage independence.
How will it affect their freedom of imagination?
This is huge, and the reason we ask that children coming to our playgroup don't wear clothes with images from TV or other digital media. Graphics often contain very "fixed" images or concepts that lock a child into a certain identity, preventing free creative play. We can allow for more freedom and imagination when we offer simplicity.
Approaching to your child's wardrobe like this can seem like a lot of unnecessary work, or even like it might stifle your child's burgeoning creativity. Kids get clothes as gifts from well meaning relatives, or chose the most obnoxious monster truck shirt as the battleground to test your boundaries and their strength of will. Some of you, I'm sure, are more fond of things like color or pattern than me. (For reference, I have gone on record that "oatmeal" is actually my favorite color, with white as a close second.) Clothing can be an incredible means of expression, a canvas for creativity, and I urge families towards simplicity for just that reason. Children develop their sense of creativity through play. With a strong imagination, un-atrophied by TV, a child can add a scrap of fabric or bit of rope to a simple outfit and completely become the mermaid or the dog trainer or the squirrel or whatever they are pretending to be. Far from being limiting or dull, a simple wardrobe (and a simple life!) can be incredibly expanding and allow for limitless excitement in the realms of imagination, unhindered by a shirt proclaiming a love of monster trucks when actually your child wants to be a fairy.