Sometimes parenting isn’t about asserting control – it’s letting it go
Getting our four-year-old (almost five) to bundle up to go outside has become nothing short of traumatizing for the entire family. We’ve had to set the alarm early just to allow for the screaming fit the minute we so much as open the hall closet to get his coat. My husband sometimes has to wrestle him into his coat! We’re feeling despondent – he’s four not two! And the advice we’re getting is running along the lines of, “You’re the parent” with a not-so-subtle implication that we’re not really in control of our son. Which may well be true! He gets to school every day with tears dried on his face and we get to work already completely stressed out. We are wondering if you have any advice so we can get through the rest of this (endless) winter.
– Losing the War with Winter
Dear Losing the War with Winter,
When people say things like ‘You’re the parent, take control!’ are they trying to be helpful, or just pointing out what they see as a lack in the other parent? Without concrete suggestions to back it up, that kind of admonishment just feels like a scolding. And you’re already feeling bad enough about yourself after physically wrestling your kid into a coat.
We have some issues with the idea of control as a parental goal. Is our job simply to get our kids to do what we say? It’s obviously important for kids to understand that they ultimately answer to you. But at the same time, being able to do things independently is so important and meaningful to children’s development. Sometimes parenting isn’t about asserting control, but about knowing when it’s okay not to.
Let’s take a look at your situation. As far as we can tell, there are a couple of ways to interpret this.
Option 1: Your child’s engaging in a power struggle.
What you’ve got here could be a classic power struggle. People expect that this type of thing will pass with the terrible twos. But in fact, as kids get older, they get smarter, sassier, and generally a lot better at putting up a fight. There are four-year-olds who could lead revolutions if properly harnessed.
If this coat conundrum is just an expression of his need for control, our best advice is to give it to him. We are not suggesting free reign. But if you gave him more ownership over the outerwear, you might find that this particular battleground gets a little less heated. Can he put on and take off his coat himself? Can you put a hook low down for him to reach? Can he pick out his hat and mittens? Can he look at a weather report in the morning to see how cold it is? The whole temperature thing can take a while to understand, but those cute images of icy gusts and clouds can be interesting to a four-year-old.
You can also pull the plug on the power struggle and tell him you’re done fighting him on the coat. Let him leave it off. Just keep the coat with you when you leave the house and see how far he goes in the cold. You’ll get some stares, and maybe even a tut from a considerate local, but you’re on a bigger mission than this one walk. Some kids can be very stubborn and put up with a lot of cold before caving. But the link between cold and illness has long been disproven, and he’s not going to get frostbite in fifteen minutes. This is about consequence, and repeated examples to your son that really and truly, he has a very important role in his self-care.
Option 2: Your child’s uncomfortable.
On the other hand, maybe your son is simply not comfortable in the coat. There are lots of reasons this might be the case. He could hate being bundled up in ten million layers while in a very warm house. We know some adults who still talk about traumatic moments of childhood overbundling. Layering can act against a young kid’s propulsion to bust out and move – something four-year-old boys tend to be interested in doing. And to take the bundled kid from a warm house to warm car to a warm school – hey, maybe he really is uncomfortable.
In this case, try letting him put on that final layer at the front door, or even once he feels the wall of winter air hit him. Kids this age might have a hard time remembering that indoor and outdoor temperatures can be super different. Again, the weather reports could help. Get him to press his cheek against the window. Ask him what he thinks the temperature is rather than just tell him.
The coat may not feel good on his body. This could be about fit or fabric, in the coat itself or what’s underneath it. Cold weather can make skin dry, and coats can press clothing against the body. Some parents have luck with organic clothes or special detergents. Other kids like fleece or fuzzy clothes.
Children process sensory input differently. Some kids are extra sensitive to clothing and other stimuli. If you think that your son’s sensitivity might go beyond the coat issue and cause problems for him in other areas of his life, you could have him evaluated. Occupational therapy can be really helpful for kids who have extreme sensory responses. Ask your son’s teachers if he has a hard time with this stuff during the day. If he doesn’t put up a fight over clothes at school, it’s more likely that this is about something else.
Option 3: Your child doesn’t have a routine.
Transitions can be hard on kids – some more than others. In schools there tend to be all kinds of established routines in place to help a kid see a transition coming and prepare. We – as parents – are often super hassled, half awake and worried about being late in the morning, and it’s easy to forget how hard it can be for kids to put down one activity and move on to another. But a little bit of planning might save you a lot of hassle. Think through some familiar routines for each morning with reminders along the way. Now we’re going to have breakfast, then we’re going to get dressed. In ten minutes we’re going to leave. All that stuff. And remember to let him make some simple choices along the way: Do you want cereal or toast for breakfast? Are you going to wear a hoodie or a sweater? Do you want to put on your coat inside, or outside?
If it’s any comfort to you, this is a pretty common problem. Sometimes parents find that one of the above options explains and helps resolve the issue. Sometimes the kid just grows out of it and that’s that. We wish you the best of luck in the coming blustery months. And if all else fails, you can always move to L.A.