Letting Your Child Dress Himself

Heather sent me an interesting email this week that I wanted to share. (Yes, I got her permission first!)

Hi Mom. Funny story… Joshua spilled milk on his pants during lunch today. He left the table to run to his closet and came back with clean jeans—but they were on backwards. After lunch, we went to Target. I totally forgot about the backwards jeans until a mom came up to me and asked if my son “dressed himself.” At first, I thought she was criticizing me and almost just walked away but then she laughed and said her daughter goes out of the house like that sometimes too and she was glad to see she wasn’t alone. We were only in the store for 20 mins or so and 2 other moms came up and also commented on Joshua’s jeans. Was I crazy for letting him out of the house like that? The clothes were clean! I had no idea it would be such a conversation starter!

My answer to Heather was, “No, you weren’t crazy. You were being a supportive mom. Good for you!  I always enjoyed seeing my preschool kids come to school with a lopsided ponytail or mismatched clothes.”

child dressed in inside-out shirt

I loved getting Heather’s email because it highlighted a few important ideas:

  • In small ways every day, foster your child’s self-confidence. If your child is pleased with something he has done, as long as it is not destructive or against a house rule (even if it is not what you would have done), acknowledge his good efforts. This positive encouragement and appropriate praise will bolster his self-esteem and encourage him to keep trying. With time (and once his pants stop having an elastic waist!) he’ll naturally learn that the zipper goes in the front.
  • Children typically have very little control over the decisions that concern them. Most parents choose their child’s meals, their child’s activities, which friends will come over for a play date and countless other details each day. So by giving your child control over smaller, less important details, like what to wear (or what to have for snack or which book to read at bedtime, for example), you give your child valuable opportunities to practice independence and decision making, two important elements of social and emotional development.
  • For young children, getting dressed is hard work. The arm, neck and leg holes are relatively small and learning to put only one foot in each pant leg or a head through the big hole and the arms in the two smaller holes is tricky. Getting dressed requires strong asymmetrical bilateral integration as one hand pulls and another leg pushes, for example. So encouraging children to dress themselves is a wonderful opportunity to practice important gross motor skills in a small way every day.

little girl putting on pants as she tries to dress herself

Encouraging your child to dress himself correctly

Yes, I know, it’s all fine and good to let your child dress himself, but I realize it would be a win-win situation if he dressed himself correctly. So, a few tips to help your child learn to dress himself correctly:

  • Keep your child’s clothes in the bottom drawers of a dresser or on a low rod in the closet so he can access them without your help. Consider investing in some inexpensive plastic drawers for your child’s clothes that can go on the floor of his closet or in his bedroom. Since these drawers are relatively small and very lightweight, your child will be able to easily open and close the drawers without help.
  • Only put season-appropriate clothing in your child’s closet. Your child likely does not understand he can’t wear shorts in the winter and will be discouraged if you make him take off shorts that he worked so hard to get on in the first place. By keeping only suitable clothing in your child’s closet, you can be assured that anything he puts on will be appropriate for the weather.
  • Iron a permanent label to the backside of all of your child’s shirts, pants, and underwear. The label can be as basic as a piece of colored “patching” fabric from a craft store. Drawing a smiley face or other small picture in permanent marker would also do the trick, as would printing your child’s name in all uppercase letters. These days it seems that some clothing has tags on the back while some clothing puts tags on the side (or is tag-free). By putting the same tag in the back of all of your child’s clothing will make it easier for him to identify the back of each piece of clothing and get clothes on the right way the first time.

Try this at home

Instead of getting dressed alone in your bedroom each morning, get into the routine of getting dressed with your child. As you put on your shirt, articulate the exact motions you are doing of pushing your head through the biggest hole and then finding the left arm hole and pushing your arm through it while your right hand holds the shirt steady.

As you get dressed, encourage your child to copy your movements and get dressed with you. Seeing you get dressed will help your child visualize what he needs to do. As your child gets better at dressing himself, you can turn this into a game where you race against your child to see who can get dressed more quickly.

little girl dressing herself

What can you share with other parents?

Where do you keep your child’s clothes? What have you tried at home for encouraging your child to dress himself? Have you found sticker charts helpful, or just good old-fashioned positive encouragement? Has your child ever dressed himself in something so inappropriate you had to ask him to try again? How did you handle that situation?

If you enjoyed reading this, please subscribe via RSS or via e-mail:

spread the word...

share your thoughts...

Images used under Creative Commons from princedd, Chris&Rhiannon and abbybatchelder.