‘Wow, someone dressed herself today, didn’t she?’ I pat my child and say proudly, ‘Yes, she did!’: Mom shares importance of fostering children’s autonomy

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Some days, I question if unicorns are real and whether they’re throwing up on my daughter. Between the stripes, polka dots, glitter, and contrasting colors, it’s a rational thought. She may or may not be hiding a magical creature in her closet, but either way, she comes out dressed in clothes.

Now, I said clothes. I didn’t say matching clothes. Nope. Most days, they don’t match. Here’s the thing: I don’t care. Actually, that’s a lie. I do care, but I don’t say anything. Weird, right?

Kids Clothes Are So Cute

Some parents love dressing their children, and I don’t blame them. There’s something unfairly adorable about children’s clothes that suck us into handing over all of our money. But, for me, I let my toddler dress herself. Sometimes, that means I get comments in the grocery store of, “Wow, someone dressed herself today, didn’t she?” And instead of an awkward smile and laugh, I pat my child and say proudly, “Yes, she did!”

In psychology, autonomy is a big part of the Self Determination Theory, which basically talks about a person’s psychological needs internally and externally. I won’t bore you with all the technical details. The gist of it is: Everyone needs autonomy. 

Autonomy is the freedom to choose for yourself. With each successful decision we make using our autonomy, we build self-confidence. This is great for adults, but with toddlers, the tiny humans who often demand and try to control everything in our lives, how can we foster autonomy without giving up full parental guidance?

Small Choices, Big Improvement

The key is to allow your child to choose—just, make it small. Perhaps it’s choosing what to eat (although, you may end up with a sugar-laden plate), choosing what to play with, or choosing what to wear. For my toddler, clothes are a big deal. I found myself fighting with her on what to wear for the longest time until it hit me. It’s not important. 

I had to remember building my child’s confidence is more important than what shirt she wears or whether the colors match. So, I made a conscious change.

By allowing her to choose her clothes—stripes, polka dots, and all—I am now fostering her ability to choose for herself. She likes choosing what she wears every day, and she likes having the responsibility. Of course, there are still rules. She can’t walk out without a dress or shirt and pants. She also needs to be dressed appropriately for the weather. But beyond that, I am okay with letting her wear what she wants.

Toddler girl in purple tulle dress holds up another dress to look at in the changing room.
Courtesy of Uchar (via Canva)

An Opportunity For Them To Learn

Every time she picks out an outfit, I compliment her on her choice. We talk about the different patterns and colors she chooses and why she chose them. Not only does it create autonomy for my toddler, but it also opens up conversations between me and her, allowing her to learn and us to bond. 

It may seem like you’re fighting your toddler on a daily basis. I’ve been there, I’m still there, and fostering their autonomy isn’t going to totally fix that. However, it can help them realize they have some control, which is what all toddlers are really asking for.

As long as your child is safe and healthy, what’s the harm? Is there really a problem with your child dressing themselves? Does it really matter whether blue or pink match? No, no it doesn’t. 

You know what does matter? Your child and their confidence.

You Child Will Be More Confident

When a child learns by themselves and has the ability to choose, it builds confidence. Autonomy builds confidence. By allowing my daughter to choose something as simple as her clothes each day, I’m allowing her to build self-confidence in a world that is full of insecurities and comparisons. 

So, the next time your child comes out with an outfit that may not match, halt the eye roll. Remember how important your child’s autonomy is and how you have the opportunity to build their confidence. I’m not going to give you a money-back guarantee (sorry folks, I’m not selling anything here), but your toddler may be better behaved in the long run. 

Toddler girl with pigtails wearing a purple dress holds up green pants she removed from a clothing rack in a dressing room.
Courtesy of Uchar (via Canva)

It’s Not The End Of The World

While it sounds crazy (and embarrassing) to let your child dress themselves, it may be the best thing you ever choose to do. But even if you can’t bear the thought of your child dressing themselves, think about increasing their autonomy. For me, once I let my daughter start dressing herself, it was one less fight. Although, now I have this little fashionista on my hands who often wants to pick out my clothes. I guess you win some and you lose some. Toddlers, am I right?

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jess Carpenter. You can follow her journey on Instagram, TikTok, and on her website. You can visit Jess’ author page here and buy her new book hereSubmit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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