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After a Fashion.I let my kids dress themselves – and it shows. By Amy Spurway for’s “Bad Parent” column.

I let my kids dress themselves - and it shows.

By Amy Spurway |

Bad Parent: After a Fashion

I let my kids dress themselves – and it shows. by Amy Spurway

May 26, 2009


This all started because I was doing things by the book. Doing what all the “experts” told me I should do. It was supposed to build my kids’ confidence, their independence, and their decision-making skills. But lately, it’s been making us look like a pack of lunatics. I let my children dress themselves. And it shows.

At first it was cute. When my twin daughters were three, I didn’t flinch at the thought of prancing down the street with one child clad in rainbow tights, a fuchsia tutu, a floppy blue sun hat, and yellow rubber boots. It was the perfect compliment to her sister’s look: orange shorts layered over purple floral pants, multi-colored striped shirt beneath a shiny cartoon-cat patterned vest, and a red fleece Elmer Fudd-ish hat perched on her head. Like the cherry on top of a very nutty sundae. People on the street would smile, chuckle, and comment as our cute, kaleidoscopic spectacle paraded by. To be honest, I kinda got off on the attention. I was proud of my little girls for picking out those outlandish get-ups all by themselves, so I did nothing to discourage it. I may have even made suggestions from time to time. Hey, you know what would go great with that tiger costume and those ballet slippers? The red Elmer Fudd hat!

But now, my daughters are almost six. They go to a nice little public school in a nice little neighbourhood in our nice little city. And they stick out like a pair of kooky, sparkly, technicolor thumbs. Which has me seriously questioning my decision to give them free rein in their closets, and worrying that their clothing choices reflect badly on me. Now, as I dart down the street with my colorfully clashtastic kids looking like a posse of insane clowns, I worry what other mothers think. I worry that they are judging me, whispering that only an LSD-dropping social maladjust would allow her children to go out in public dressed like that. But I am not an LSD-dropping social maladjust. Haven’t been for quite some time. In fact, I spent the last six years cultivating the attitude that I was a far better parent than those whose murmurs I’m now suddenly paranoid about: those who forbade the public wearing of tutus with rubber boots. Those who confined their kids’ clothes to classic shades of tasteful, sophisticated and dull. Those whose children’s outfits failed to inspire seizures in epileptic bystanders. I didn’t shackle my children with the notion that clothing had to match. I didn’t push my kids to blend in with the sheepish crowd. I was too busy teaching them to be creative and carefree. To be individuals. And I was pretty damn smug about it.

See, I’m no clothes horse. I’m more like a clothes donkey. And ever since the thorough heckling I endured for the trendy red crushed velvet corset/coffin-lining/pirate shirt hybrid I wore in grade ten, I’ve avoided taking risks with my wardrobe. My outfit options fall into three categories: black hanging-around-the-house clothes, black going-out-in-public clothes, and crazy-things-I-bought-on-impulse-but-don’t-have-the-guts-to-actually-wear clothes. But I always wanted to be the girl who could pull off the plaid-mini-skirt-over- ripped-jeans look. Maybe with a purple cashmere sweater, a stripey knit scarf, peacock feather earrings, and a blue fedora. So, maybe by letting my kids continue to dress like the rainbow riot squad, I’ve been doing a little vicarious living. And maybe it’s time I stopped. Maybe I should put the tutus and wacky hats back in the dress-up trunk where they belong. Maybe I should sit my girls down and explain the importance of not wearing multi-colored horizontal and vertical stripes with polka-dots and jumbo floral prints. Maybe I should make some room in their closets for shades of tasteful, sophisticated – and yes, even dull – before my unsuspecting daughters and their fashion non-sense become targets of other kids’ cruelty and insecurity. But it might be too late for all that, as is evident by the conversations that ensue when I try to stage my little interventions.

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About Amy Spurway


Amy Spurway

Amy Spurway is a freelance writer, communications consultant, and reticent owner of a handcrafted faux furkini. She and her husband live in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with three colorful daughters who regularly discover new ways to make their mother turn several shades of red.

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32 thoughts on “After a Fashion.I let my kids dress themselves – and it shows. By Amy Spurway for’s “Bad Parent” column.

  1. FunkyMama says:

    This hardly makes you a bad parent, quite the opposite I’d say, your girls sound independent and sure of themselves.  I’d gladly take a rainbow and funky ballerina over a khaki clad little lamb any day.

  2. beeb says:

    I totally relate. Except my first two kids are boys so their get-ups were more along the lines of red plaid bermuda shorts paired with indigo long sleeve tee, green socks, khaki fishing hat and rainboots. I do have a little gal now, too, and I LOVE watching her put her outfits together. When my first son was about four I declared to him that there were just a few rules for dressing: 1. Had to be safe/comfortable (i.e. no swim trunks and bare feet in January or wool turtleneck sweaters to the playground when it’s 100 degrees); 2. Had to be clean; and 3. I only would insist on certain colors/lengths/styles IF we were attending a formal event – Christmas mass, wedding, family portrait. It all works out to the lovely fact that my children choose their clothes approximately 361 days per year. I think it’s great!

  3. DaintySplendor says:

    i love to dress my baby funky, it makes him look cooler – never those ordinary sky-blue outfits..

  4. Mondster says:

    I LOVE THIS! Well written to boot!  I plan to do the same when I have some of my own.  Bravo!  Keep up the good work!  They are rainbows, afterall…

  5. Lanie Rules says:

    I wouldn’t worry about it until a teacher says it is a problem or your kids same something about getting picked on. For the most part at this age the other kids are more likely wishing they could dress like the rainbow and wear tutus to school. My daughter is only 4 and never matches, I have no intent on her stopping picking out her own clothes. I figured eventually she will learn about matching and blend in but until then I will let her stand out. If she hasn’t learned by middle school about how to dress I may say something then.
    A little hint if your budget can afford it try shopping at gymboree, I have never seen anything in dull colors there and they make entire lines of clothing that can be mix and matched for outfits. I always try to get some clothes there each season since I am assured at least there is a chance she will pull something out that matches.

  6. Jersey2J says:

    There are many battles in life and wrestling with our daughter about her everyday attire is not one in which we choose to engage. Our five year-old daughter knows that there are dress rules for religious holidays and special occasions. (Minus the Disney Belle costume on Yom Kippur 2007, a day of atonement and regret.)
    The last thing we want to do is crush her ever-developing spirit and confidence. We discuss the “why” when her attire is out of place or inappropriate, but for the most part she can look like the little Fancy Nancy, Rainbow Bright, My Little Pony, Betsy Johnson, multi-color explosion that she is … with her red hair blue eyes she is a sight to behold.

  7. Jennifer Larson says:

    Aw, don’t worry. Your daughters are having fun, and no one is going to think badly of you for letting them pick out their own crazy wardrobes. Or if they do, too bad! They should find more important things to worry about.
    I say, save your energy for limiting their wardrobe choices for when they’re teenagers and want to leave the house in something that bares too much of…well, whatever teenagers are baring too much of in a few years.

  8. ChiLaura says:

    The piece itself is fine, but for babble’s “Bad Parent” column? Boooooring! Especially since any expert I’ve ever read says that this is EXACTLY what you’re “supposed” to do when it comes to kids and clothes. How does this qualify one for “Bad Parent” in the slightest? I don’t get it.
    Maybe “Bad Parent” needs to be published a little less frequently so that the ideas will be a little more original.

  9. meesha says:

    They’d fit right into the pages of Nylon.  I was floored recently when I saw a fashion spread that emphasized clashing! 
    That said, I dressed like this as a kid and loved it.  Once I was a preteen I took every little comment I overheard from my grandmas or aunts and made sure to do the opposite, like wearing stripes with polka dots, white shoes after Labor Day, etc.  It was great fun.  But that was the 80′s, and Punky Brewster was my hero.

  10. WSP says:

    People who brag about how their children’s clothing is so fun and out-there strike me as classist.  Then again, I was the youngest of 6 girls and never actually wore anything new as a child.  And it hasn’t hampered my personality one bit.

  11. April C says:

    They have PLENTY of years to wear dull colors.
    My 4.5 yo son has never cared about clothes until now. To this point I could put him in whatever I deemed cute. (Now all he wants are soccer shirts.) My 2yo daughter otoh… she dresses herself (yes she has done what it took me 4.5 years to teach my son to do, dress oneself) in multiple layers with random clothes and play clothes. We get plenty of smirks as we walk into daycare. But with her it is a matter of picking my battles. I will battle the hitting and kicking and temper tantrums. I refuse to battle over clothing choices (at least right now).

  12. Brooke Johnson says:

    How is it classist? I think the idea is letting a child wear whatever combinations they like but not buying them crazy clothing all the time. I remember when I was a child and even a teenager. All my clothing was hand-me-downs or things I pulled out of my mom’s closet. I wore some pretty crazy outfits; ties, pants that were huge, crazy multi-colored 80′s shirts, mini-skirts, all sorts of wild things that I did not pay for. 

  13. emzmom says:

    I have allowed my daughter the same freedoms, She will have to conform to societies dress norms when she gets older. I let her have fun to be a child now and use all the creativity while she has it. She does have to dress appropriately for certain situations, but other than that if she can run and have fun and not get blisters it’s an outfit. I agree that we should save our energy for the teenage year” too much skin ” outfits.

  14. lola in san francisco says:

    There’s nothing worse than seeing some poor kid dressed like a clown while their disheveled parents smiles indulgently.

  15. fnarf says:

    Congratulations — you’ve raised a couple of self-indulgent, demanding, vacuous hippies. Self-consciously wacky clothes are a more effective strait-jacket than if you made them wear Easter dresses every day.

  16. skinnymom says:

    I wore a uniform every day of my school life from age 5 onward, and it certainly didn’t hamper my creativity or personality. If anything, it taught me that clothes don’t capture the essence of a person at all. You’re kids will be fine, although I’m a little concerned that they are refusing to cooperate when you suggest alternatives, and you give in too easily. Sure, there are other battles to fight, but learning to wear respectable, appropriate clothing at the right time is part of growing up. Let them wear their “crazies” on the weekend, but during the week for school they should have a standard repertoire of acceptable (approved by you) clothes to choose from.

  17. ummmmhardly says:

    Right. You just happen to stock your child’s closet with with tutus and
    striped tights and are then somehow mystified when they put together
    these “wacky” combinations. Haven’t you noticed they are selling tutus at the Gap? Tutus are the
    new Khakis. Bad Parent? Hardly. I can’t think of anything less radical then being such a good little consumer.

  18. Paula Hess says:

    I think childhood is the perfect time to let them do what they want.  Usually, junior high is the litmus test: either they decide they wish to brave the cruelty that comes with looking a little kooky, wish to rigorously conform in efforts to blend in with the popular kids, or strike out on their own in an eclectic mix of standard and striking.
    My mother let us get all our 80′s new wave ya-yas out in middle school (think tails, bleached bowl cuts, and lots of band buttons), and by high school, I didn’t even own a pair of jeans because I only wore Laura Ashley dresses and Polo corduroy pants.  I was nauseatingly preppy.

  19. ann05 says:

    I am so perplexed by people who are criticizing the author for not making her daughters wear “respectable, appropriate” clothes. Do y’all really care that much what other people think of you? Or your kids? Are you really a “hippy” if you wear mismatching clothes? I actually feel bad for people who feel that much pressure to conform. It’s just clothing. 

  20. tomjen469 says:

    I think its great. You are letting your kids be theirselfs instead of the pretty package society wants. Later in life, they will probably be more open about others because of it.

  21. emomma says:

    Great essay. I particularly appreciated your daughter’s comment about people not knowing she’s a rainbow if she doesn’t wear all the colors. My 5 year old recently went to kindergarten dressed as a flower with very particular color choices and is also known for some wacky color/pattern combos. I’ve had the same internal debate you describe and so appreciate reading about a family with similarly spirited little girls.And wearing crazy patterned clothes is different than wearing clothes that come across as disrespectful for an occasion or clothes that fail to protect them from the weather or properly cover their bodies. Some of the comments seem to fail to differentiate among those choices.

  22. NZErin says:

    I’m with Brooke in response to this being a classist issue. At this stage my baby girl wears what I put her in, but it’s not like I necessarily chose the clothes in the first place. In fact, beggars can only be choosers with what they’ve got, and the majority of my daughter’s clothes are hand-me-downs and gifts from well-meaning family and friends. Like the proverbial Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, you work with what you’ve got – sometimes it’s freakish; sometimes it’s awesome.
    Anyway, when my daughter decides to pick and choose her own threads – just as I did as a toddler a lot of time (obviously there were times when Mum’s rule prevailed) – I can, like my own mother before me, honestly claim that most of the outfit had nothing to do with me.
    Also, coming from a country where school uniform is pretty much standard, I can assure you that even in a class of children identically dressed, individual style and personality shines through. Just as you shouldn’t stifle personal expression, don’t for a second think that it’s truthfully represented in dress. Your tutu-wearing rainbow might just be following as much of a perceived rule as the kid in khaki.   

  23. NZErin says:

    Oh God, commenting anxiety…
    I with Brooke on this NOT being a classist issue – I realise that is the tenor of my comment above, but I know so many people on this site jump and any inaccuracies in the way you wrote it.
    So yes, beggar’s can be choosers and often have to be more original in their choosing.
    As you were…

  24. NZErin says:

    And now I’m noticing all the typos…
    Haha. We mother’s have to calm down!

  25. NZErin says:

    You know, if we’re worrying about clothes and in my case misplaced f-ing apostrophes, we’re really doing ok.
    I’ll shut up now.

  26. mightydoll says:

    @Lola – Really? Nothing worse?

  27. SmalltownLe says:

    I went to high school with two different girls who wore the most outlandish, ridiculous clothing and color combinations (think: neon bracelets, combat boots, cat-ear headbands, non-prescription plastic-rimmed eyeglasses, chiffon dresses layered over jeans, spiked wrist cuffs, etc.). Keep in mind, this was high school, not elementary, and they were still allowed to dress as they pleased. I’m sure they endured some teasing now and again, but for the most part, we (the “normal” kids whose parents would never dream of letting us out of the house in such get-up) laughed, moved on with our lives, and grew to appreciate their originality. Today, one of those girls is a fashion designer with her own line, and the other is a movie costume designer. Just goes to show that allowing your kids a little leeway and creativity (even with something as unimportant as their clothing choices) may benefit them in the long run.

  28. sourgrapes says:

    Funny, I pitched this very same idea to Ada over a year and a half ago and got a “This isn’t quite right for us, but thanks for thinking of Babble!”BITCH!

  29. teach says:

    Another example of why there are endless seas of rude, selfish kids around who seem to have real problems dealing with themselves and the real world.  Kids who have record amounts of depression. Trust me I live by a university and I am also a teacher. I have the examples and the stories. Parents since the 80′s have needed to wake up! I grew up in the 80′s but I was one of the lucky kids who had older parents who taught me time and place, manners, discipline and humility along with my independence and creativity. Parents grow up! I think the post from fnarf said it best….

  30. Anonymous says:

    I let my daughter dress herself most days but tutu’s, wings, hats and other kooky items are in the dress up area and are not available for getting dressed in the morning. My daughter also understands that I have absolute veto power.

  31. smartypantzed says:

    I enjoyed the article- thank you. The comments, however, seem to swing from one extreme to the next. Isn’t it possible to allow your child to develop her/his own sense of self in a respectful manner?

    I began allowing my daughter to choose her own clothes when she was five. Before embarking on this adventure (and yes, it often is), however, I set some ground rules w/her. She has “free dress” days where she can pick whatever she likes. There are other days when she is allowed to choose from her “Fancy Nancy” clothes (school pictures, dinner out, etc.) and other days when I give her choices (church, family gathering, holidays, etc.). Additionally, we always talk about the event she’s about to attend and what might be the appropriate dress. She has never chosen PJ’s for school, and she has a healthy sense of what is respectful and what isn’t. Our job as parents is to “teach” as much as it is to do anything else. Guiding our children in the right direction by giving them the power to make good decisions with the information and assistance we give them is a win-win for everyone!

  32. Mom says:

    People are so mean and rotten with their comments. Chill out.

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