If you’ve ever met us for a dinner or a play date or even follow me on Instagram, you have seen some of Harper’s more interesting outfits and I’ll be the first to tell you none of them are my idea. That’s right, I let my four year old dress herself. Sometimes she does way better than I would of and sometimes she looks like Scuba Steve.
There are people in my life, people who love us and care deeply for my daughter, who aren’t comfortable with this practice. In fact, they seem embarrassed to be seen out in public with Harper sometimes and that has spurred me to write this, not in defense but more in explanation.
My job as a mom is essentially tri-fold.
I am responsible for keeping Harper relatively safe and that safety manifests in different ways. Sometimes that means hiding caustic materials on high shelves behind safety latched cupboard doors. Other times, its teaching her she is in control of her own decisions and letting her know she is responsible for setting her own boundaries.
I am responsible for keeping Harper nourished. That nourishment is not simply feeding her good food that supplies her body with the nutrients and vitamins it needs to thrive. It also includes reading to her to fill her mind with words she can use to make connections and communicate her wants and needs. It means hugging her and kissing her and telling her heart that she is always loved regardless of her faults or flaws or the decisions she will make that will make me upset.
I’m responsible for facilitating a life that presents opportunities for exploration. That means giving her space to seek out what interests her and introducing her to a myriad of different people, places, and things so she can make informed decisions about who she is.
So, how does that relate to Harper wearing sparkly tights, a pirate eye patch, and a Cookie Monster pajama shirt to the grocery store? Well, letting her pick out her of clothes doesn’t create an unsafe environment. I’m not going to let her go out in a snowstorm in her swimming suit and I’m not going to send her out in a heat wave in a parka but 99% of the time what she’s wearing isn’t going to have any bearing on her physical safety, especially in San Diego.
The list of what is DOES do is considerably longer and more profound.
It gives her agency over her body and has been from the time she started dressing herself two years ago. We live in a society that tells girls and women exactly how they should look and act and has a very strict idea of what is acceptable female behavior. The media in an onslaught of airbrushed girls is perfect clothes, slathered in makeup, and always looking for new and expensive ways to rid every inch of their bodies, heads withstanding, from any trace of hair. Those ideas are perpetuated every day by teachers, friends, family members, her peers, random old ladies at the grocery store, and even someone who might tell her to sit with her legs closed at a baseball game. I can’t protect her from most of those things but I can do my best to counteract them. I need to be the place she turns too when those messages are overwhelming and she starts to lose herself in them. I want to be the relief from the the expectations of others.
I don’t want anyone telling her what she can or can’t, has to or shouldn’t do with her body. It’s hers and the purpose it serves in the world is hers to decide. I can’t promote that idea without acting in a manner that enforces the words that spill from my mouth. What I do will resonate with her when those words have long since faded from her memory.
Our bodies and the clothes we put on them are a large portion of the first level of exploration we embark on as children. It’s why dress up is so wildly popular amongst both boys and girls. Allowing her to wear what’s comfortable or attractive or fun inspires her to extend that interest both inward to who she is becoming and also outward into the world around her.
It helps me focus on what’s important. I can’t micromanage her, and I shouldn’t. Not bickering over what she’s wearing leaves more of my day open for her un-ending curiosity. There isn’t enough time in a day to begin with and fighting over what shoes she’s wearing is a waste of a very precious resource. She won’t always be this little and open. I really don’t have that time to waste, it’s already been allocated to mud pies, beach days, museum wandering, finger painting, baseball games, cookie baking, and afternoons spent with at Hogwarts or in Narnia or on the island Where the Wild Things Are.
Plus, who am I to take any of that unadulterated joy from her just because she doesn’t match.