In the spirit of coming back to the snow and ice of Canada, today we’re going to be talking about why I stopped forcing my kids to wear jackets.
Don’t gasp at me, I know what you’re thinking and I guarantee you that this doesn’t mean my children don’t wear jackets, in fact if anything they wear their jackets far more consistently.
Why did I stop forcing my kids to wear jackets?
Let’s start with, I do not live in a warm climate.
I live right on the border between what we would typically call Northern Ontario and Eastern Ontario in Canada.
It’s very snowy, and it can get very cold.
It’s not uncommon for us to have solid weeks in the -20 to -30 degree celsius range (-4 to -22 Farenheight for any Americans listening), but we regularly dip as low as -40 degrees…which is also -40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Before anyone comes for me saying “easy for you to say- you live in California!” No, no I do not.
Though I often wish that I did, at least for the climate. So I grew up being nagged to wear a jacket. I have also suffered from frostbite more than once.
Yet, as soon as my kids turned about 2, they started to refuse to wear their jackets.
I very quickly realized that I had benefited from what I call “Not Mom Syndrome” when I was an early interventionist because while I very rarely had battles over jackets with the kids I did early intervention with early in my career, with my own kids it quickly became a daily thing.
One day I was chatting with one of the Moms whose daughter I used to work with, and I lamented the jacket situation, and she was like “well, you never really forced S to wear her jacket? You just let her fuck around and find out the first time and she never pushed it with you again.”
I did what I often fail to do and took my younger self’s advice, and I stopped forcing my kids to wear jackets.
I started letting them mess around and finding out.
In other words I started leading with the natural consequence: which was that they’d be cold. And very quickly the jacket wars were a thing of the past.
Now that my kids are older, my oldest is now 9 and my youngest is 6, I’ve had some time to reflect on why this worked so well, not only when they were little, but has continued to work as they go through mid-childhood.
Here’s what I’ve come up with:
First, obviously, it’s letting them experience the consequences of their own actions, also known as: Natural Consequences.
When I really thought on it, even going out in -40 degrees without a jacket is not going to kill you. Because let’s be honest: nobody is hanging out outside in -40 degrees.
You’re going from your home to the car, from the car to the store, and back again.
At best, absolutely nobody is staying outside in those temperatures for more than a couple minutes at most.
While *I* certainly wouldn’t choose to not wear a thick sweater and a parka outside in those temperatures it’s not going to hurt them if they choose not to.
In which case, allowing them to experience why I’m requesting outerwear is really the most impactful thing I can do because I know that it’s going to sting like stepping on a hive when they step out in a t-shirt, but children are horrible at accepting second hand experience.
If I want them to wear a coat without a fight, I need to let them experience the consequence of not and sure enough the first time my sons stepped out in frigid temperatures in short sleeves was the last time they stepped outside in frigid temperatures with short sleeves…
Because it hurt!
But it only hurt for a second, and then they came right back in and grabbed a jacket.
As much as we dislike our children experiencing discomfort, if that discomfort isn’t life-threatening, then it’s often the best teaching tool we have.
Second, differences in the perception of temperature.
I’m sure we all have friends who live in a different climate than we do who we perceive to have a messed up temperature guage.
One of my most recent experiences with this was on our trip to Florida last November, and on the day we left it went down to about 15 degrees celsius- or 59 degrees fahrenheit.
As we’re pulling away from the AirBNB we rented, my kids started howling with laughter because there was a woman walking down the sidewalk with her dog- sporting a knee-length parka with fur around the hood.
Here we were in tank tops and shorts!
When I took my oldest to California to visit family friends when he was four, and we met up with a colleague of mine and her daughter at an indoor playground one afternoon.
Now, it was raining, but it was still about 20 degrees outside (68 degrees F.) and my son was in shorts and bare feet, and the manager of the playground came running over and offered me a pair of socks for him.
I apologised because I figured, duh, indoor playground- they need to wear socks.
She said no no, they don’t need socks, it was just so cold in there she was sure he was freezing without them since he was also in shorts and a t-shirt.
I had to kindly explain that we were visiting from Canada and that it was about 60 degrees warmer there than it was where we came from so he was just fine.
Even without regional differences, I can be freezing and my husband and kids can be sweating.
All this to say, just because you’re cold, doesn’t mean your child is cold.
When we force them to wear outerwear or warm clothing they don’t want, we diminish their bodily autonomy and their trust in their body’s signals.
Which, especially when they’re 2,3,4, we’re generally trying to teach them to tune into, not ignore.
By letting them make that call and choose not to put a coat on, we’re allowing them to figure out what they perceive as cold or hot.
How can you implement this if you’ve been stuck in the dreaded jacket wars?
Well, the first thing is to make sure when they refuse, that you let them know why you’re recommending they wear a jacket, and where the jacket will be when they change their mind.
For instance: “Okay, you don’t have to wear a jacket if you don’t want to- but I’m letting you know that it’s very cold outside. Would you like to step out and see if that’s still your choice? Okay, if you change your mind, your jacket will be right here in your backpack and you can put it on if you get cold.”
This way they know that you’ve told them what you perceive is appropriate, and they know they have the ability to change their mind and get access to their jacket whenever they want to.
I usually try to put it somewhere they can get it by themselves, because that perception of having to “admit defeat” will often push children to suffer for way longer than they otherwise would.
Rather than put it in the trunk of the car, I try to bring it in our bag or if they’re carrying a bag, I put it in their bag.
This works with scarves, mitts, and hats too.
My children walk themselves to their bus stop now and I recently bumped into the neighbour whose house their stop is in front of, and she asked why my 6 year old almost always shows up without a hat and then immediately goes into his bag to pull one out and put it on when he gets to the bus stop.
I said because he really hates the feeling of hats on his head, so I always put it in his bag, and he must realize after walking half a kilometer to the bus stop that yeah, it’s uncomfortable, but cold ears are more uncomfortable.
He’s making that choice, and I’m not imposing it on him he’s learning to trust his judgement and make his own choices about his wellbeing.
A big part of developing independence: giving children the experiences and tools they need to make good decisions based off the information they have access to.
As always, if you’d like to talk out how to implement this with your own kids or you have questions- come join us in the Parenting Posse! We are currently well on our way to hitting 11K members and we’d love to have you join us so we can support you on your journey through evidence-based parenting.