Clothes Call

Debbie Angelos

From the Spiderman shirt worn for the fifth day in a row to the skirt that seems to have been designed for a doll, parents can feel like their children's bodies have become battlefields - and clothes are the weapons.

"It was the Blue's Clues tank top. That's all she wanted to wear when she was 2," said Tanya Wycinski of her daughter, Gabby, now 10.

Wycinski's 8 year-old son, Spencer, on the other hand, has started just recently to care about his clothes and it's all about t-shirts and basketball shorts.

"He despises polo shirts but he will wear them for special events if I promise that he can change the second we get home," she said.

Wycinski, a Hilliard resident, is definitely not alone in navigating the tug-of-war over kids' clothing. Janis Wunderlich, a mother of five from Upper Arlington, once had visions of Baby Gap children playing at her feet. Nowadays, her youngest, 7-year-old Eliza, routinely emerges from her room wearing leopard print and sparkly items from her dress-up box.

"I've always wanted my kids to be independent," said Wunderlich. "I just had to realize that I also had to accept the end result of independence."

While some children's choices may provoke parental head scratching, this process of seeking independence through attire is actually an essential part of child development said Kathryn Leugers, a family and child psychologist with Meers Inc., a Columbus-based counseling service.

"The desire for independence is often most pronounced as toddlers and as teens," Leugers said, adding that it's during these years that kids are trying to assert themselves as separate entities from their parents.

Allowing children to assert independence in their clothing choices may seem like a terrifying prospect as visions of a perpetually tutu-clad preschooler or a Buzz Lightyear attending a family wedding fill parents' heads. But, as with everything else in the world of parenting, boundaries are essential.

The key for parents, Leugers suggested, is to "try to balance their child's need for security with the child's need for challenge and growth."

Allowing your child to have a voice in decisions, from what they wear to where the family goes on vacation to how problems are solved, while still maintaining ultimate authority, can help children develop the independence they need to become socially and emotionally mature, Leugers said.

Both Wycinski and Wunderlich pointed out that allowing their children to dress themselves on most days definitely cuts down on arguments when bad weather or special events arise. Feeling free to choose how they dress "gives them a sense of responsibility," said Wycinski. "Plus, it helps to have one less thing to stress about. There are so many other things to worry about, like safety."

Parental boundaries and input can differ not only for age but for gender as well. Boys, for instance, often cannot be cajoled to go within 50 feet of a clothing store. This may necessitate parental intervention once holes larger than those for appropriate appendages begin to appear in their favorite clothing.

Girls, on the other hand, often seem to go through a "brand-enlightenment" phase starting around age 10, said Wunderlich. A recent study from Kenyon College found that pre-teen girls are a prime marketing target for retail manufacturers, who are increasingly marketing mature styles to girls as young as 6.

"I have noticed that some of Gabby's age group have started to wear some things that are a little too old - especially the printed novelty tees with expressions on them the girls themselves may not even understand," said Wycinski.

Both parents try to counter these trends by teaching their kids to look beyond what everyone else is doing.

"We don't need miniature adults," Wunderlich said. "We need to let them play, act and dress like kids first."

No matter the age or the gender, clothing conflicts seem to evolve over time as kids grow into their own personalities. While setting up certain ground rules can help avoid major arguments, allowing kids freedom to choose how they present themselves may be beneficial to their self esteem in the long run, experts and parents agree.

"It's important to let kids be kids and get a feel for who they want to be," said Wycinski.

Parents may even find, as Wunderlich did, that clothing discussions eventually come full circle: "Now that I have teenagers, they love to tell my husband and me what to wear!"

The Rules of Engagement

Navigate the battlefield of clothing without casualties using these tips from veteran moms Wunderlich and Wycinski:

*For big events, decide on an outfit together the night before.

*Allow a favorite shirt to be worn underneath an outfit.

*Buy stickers of favorite characters to put on shirts.

*Turn well-loved items into clothing for dolls, blankets or pillowcases.

*Encourage older kids to cultivate their own style through thrift stores, vintage shops or creating their own clothes to fit their own style.