Children learning to dress themselves are adorable right up until they become infuriating. Watching a toddler squeeze their entire torso into a single pant leg? Adorable. Repeatedly putting the shoe on the wrong foot as the work day inches closer? Adorable, then frustrating. Trying to figure out how to pull pants right-side-out? Frustrating. Parents inevitably have to intercede, but do so with mixed results. After all, it’s hard to help someone become independent. The paradox is difficult to overcome. Still, self-dressing is important because of the skills involved— cognitive, motor, aesthetic— are not just critical independently but helpful used in conjunction with each other. The best way forward? Remembering that struggle is a good color on kids.
“We’ve got to let the kids struggle a little bit,” says Chicago-based pediatrician Dr. Shelly Vaziri Flais, author of Raising Twins: Parenting Multiples From Pregnancy Through the School Years. “They’re not going to do a great job the first times, but those baby steps are going to be what they need to get to the next level. Patience is required.”
Generally, children will begin undressing themselves between 12 and 18 months (usually in public places at inopportune times). This serves as a great opportunity for parents to begin teaching them how clothing itself functions—basically showing a child how to get dressed in reverse. During this time, parents can make a game of teaching the children how to put the clothes back on, using songs or even choreography to lay the foundation for dressing themselves. Think teaching them to reach for the sky in order to get on a shit, for instance.
After that, expect a lot of trial and error between the ages of two and three, as the child begins to crave more independence.
“Toddlers and even preschoolers are all about asserting themselves as people,” says Flais. “In infancy, they can’t even disconnect themselves from their parents. Now they’re their own people, and part of how that plays out is ownership of their own body.”
To ease the struggle, parents can take extremely simple steps to help the child develop cognitive and motor skills involved with dressing themselves. Keep outfits simple with loose arm, leg, and neck holes. Allow the child choices about what they wear, within those parameters, giving them the chance to exercise independence, which makes the task its own reward.
“I wouldn’t let them have free reign of the closet,” says Flais. “Instead, I’d be like ‘Ok, it’s going to be chilly out: Do you want to wear this or this?’ Make it a choice. If the whole closet is available, you’re never going to leave the house.”
Speaking of never leaving the house, it’s essential during the trial and error process to allow children ample time to learn the ins and outs of dressing. That means building in time for them to figure things out without the pressure of a stressed-out parent jumping in to expedite the process.
“First thing in the morning, everyone’s scrambling. Maybe you didn’t leave enough time to get ready that morning,” Flais says. “It’s a recipe for disaster because the parent’s frustrated and like ‘here, let me just put that on for you.’ The kid never learns. Focus on the weekends.”
As with many learned tasks, rewards ease the way. So does acknowledging that kids will be kids: Allowing them to be goofballs not only encourages creativity and self-sufficiency, it makes learning a new skill fun.
“Who hasn’t seen a three or four-year-old at Target with their family wearing a princess dress or Batman outfit? I say have at it,” says Flais. “Part of the challenge is, the kid’s going to have opinions about what they want to wear. Relax and choose your battles. If they dress themselves and it’s crazy and mismatched, applaud them and go with it. Don’t feel the need to overcorrect. That will kind of squash their spirit.”
There’s also no rush to get a child up to speed on self-sufficient dressing. Flais says she constantly addresses parental anxiety about children older than three struggling with dressing, much like some do with potty training. She stresses that every child’s development is different, and they’ll get up to speed eventually with encouragement and patience.
“Sometimes with these transitions, you just have to do it: Baby steps on weekends when you have more time, letting the kid do trial and error,” Flais says. “Obviously, sometimes you have to rescue them if their head goes through the arm hole. But the bottom line is, they won’t learn it unless they get the experience with it. What parents have going for them is kiddos typically want to make it to that next step and gain that independence. They’ll get there in their own time.”