Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Children's Clothing: Function, Then Fashion

Henry dressed in a functional kimono-style outfit on his Montessori movement mat

I'm reading more of Montessori from the Start, and I particularly enjoyed the section about clothing.

The authors assert that the main principles around selecting clothing should be:
  1. freedom of movement
  2. ease of dressing
  3. appropriate dress for the occasion

Although the principles seem simple, the implementation of them is pretty radical. For example, Montessorians do not select dresses for everyday use because they can inhibit a crawling child's movement (since the dress will hang down and is likely to get kneed). They also try to keep the feet and legs as bare as possible to facilitate movement (temperature permitting, of course).

In terms of ease of dressing, the goal is to facilitate the child's ability to dress him/herself as early as possible. The idea is that the more independent children are, the more secure and confident they feel about themselves as individuals. In terms of clothing that helps children dress themselves, the authors recommend pants that have an elastic waist with no buttons or snaps, shirts with wide necks to go over the head easily, pants that do not have tight cuffs at the ankles, and sweaters and coats that have buttons that fit easily into their holes.

I found the third principle--"appropriate dress for the occasion"--to be quite interesting. I guess it means you don't let your child wear a tutu to church, even though you are trying to cultivate their independence and their right to choose. It reminds me of a Montessori principle I learned in my training and implemented nearly every day in the classroom: "freedom with responsibility." In practice, this looks like setting out two appropriate options for the child to choose from.

I found this approach to dressing children to be very practical, yet a bit counter-cultural. I see so many parents who emphasize fashion over function when it comes to dressing their children. The authors ask this very poignant question:

"As a parent, are you seeing your child as a living human being with specific needs or as an object for your pleasure and self-enhancement?"

They go on to say: "It is particularly unfortunate when the child is dressed with so much adornment that we see not so much the child as her outward decoration. The message that we inadvertently send to the child is 'What is important about you is not what is inside of you but what is outside of you.'"

Whoa! What a powerful thought!

All of this reminds me of a lecture I went to by the author of So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids. The author talked about how girls are choosing to dress in sexier and sexier ways at a younger age. It makes me wonder if the drive to dress oneself to attract attention and feel worthwhile stems--in part--from the ways in which we dress our children when they are younger?

And then, on the other hand, I do want Henry to have attractive clothing. I think aesthetics matter. I like beautiful and attractive things in my life.

I guess I should think about it like a decision tree. The first question I ask myself when buying Henry clothing should be: Is it functional? Will this piece of clothing be comfortable to him? Will it facilitate his movement? Will it facilitate his independence with dressing?

If any of those answers are "no," then I should not buy the clothing, no matter how cute it is.

If the answers are "yes" to all of those questions, then I can ask, "Is it aesthetically appealing?" If it's not, then I shouldn't get it either.

In short, I'll shop for function and then fashion.

I put these ideas into practice this past weekend at the Baby GAP. I had a gift certificate that I wanted to spend, and I found the most adorable pair of jeans on the clearance rack. Since Henry won't really need to wear pants until this winter, I wanted to buy a large size. This winter, he will be approximately ten months old, and he will be much more involved in dressing himself. The jeans I wanted to get had a hook closure at the waist that only a grown-up would be able to close. I decided, instead, to opt for a pair of pants with an elastic waist. They aren't as cute as the jeans, but they will help Henry feel more accomplished and independent, which is way more important to me.

Now that I've babbled on and on about clothing, I'm starting to ask myself, "Aren't you wasting a lot of time and energy thinking about something as mundane as clothing?" But my response to myself is that the little things have big implications. How we interact with our children in small ways start to add up to something much larger. In the first six years of his life, Henry is constructing his personality, his sense of self. I want him to feel confident and competent, and if I can help cultivate those feelings by facilitating his ability to dress himself, then the effort is worth it.

(Editor's Note: This post doesn't even attempt to address all the other aspects that go into my clothing purchases: Where was this made? Were workers exploited? Could I buy this used instead to be better for the environment? Is this item budget-friendly? Is this item really needed?)

Oy vey!

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Kylie D said...

Great post. Clothing is so very relevant to the child's independence. Having a boy it is a little harder to find pants that have elastic waists. So, so many cargo pants, jeans even cords have some kind of button closures. This is even more important when they start go to the toilet themselves.

Anonymous said...

At ten months, you'll still be dressing him. Enjoy the spiffy clothes while you can: The battles start around 13 months or so.....

Anonymous said...

Love this post -- particularly your reflections about seeing the child, not just the "ornaments." I reflect on several things when I dress my daughter, but among them are 1) does this reflect my child's personality as I see it developing (until she is old enough to pick clothes for herself and reflect her personality as she likes), and 2) does this outfit reflect the respect I have for my daughter and the respect I want other to show her?

It is truly interesting to me to note that people treat my daughter differently depending upon what she is wearing. On one hand, that is shallow; on another hand it is natural. After noticing it, I've worked hard to present my child in neat, simple, basic clothes. She's too young to dress herself yet, but she is not too young (I believe) to notice how others react to her presence. I don't want her treated like a little china doll or a mini hot chick, so I am not dressing her like one. I have returned so, so many clothes we've recieved as gifts because they violate my principles of dress for my daughter. [As a side note, we now have a son on the way and I am finding it SO much harder to find clothes that reflect the simplicity and sweetness of babyhood without labling my little man as a sports fan, future fill-in-the-blank-with-the-career-of-your-choice, or the darker more teen-type themed clothes that they are now making for the tiny wearer! Basically we're going with frogs, haha!]

Cecile said...

Since, you have a french dictionnary in your house, I dare posting a link to a article in french language :


It's about baby clothing from the most famous brand for children clothes here in france.

They put adjectives for baby girl onesies... most of them are related to being pleasant to look at "pretty" etc...

While they put other adjectives for baby boy onesies... more related to being strong and capable of making action.

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