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What To Do When Your Toddler Won’t Put on Clothes

Friday, May 24th, 2013 12:30 pm | By Stephanie Woo

My toddler refuse to put on clothes

Dr. Montessori says, “Follow the child.” I adhere strictly to this point of view. Except when it comes to my children staying warm. 

I feel my children are always cold. All the overdressed Asian children on the playground hint at perhaps it’s an Asian thing. As soon as the temperature drops below 72, I want to see everyone in socks and an extra layer. It’s not uncommon to see me tackling my children and forcing them to put on a jacket OR threatening them in numerous ways if they don’t put on their socks. I’ve lost my temper more than once with my nanny or husband as I yell, “The children’s hands are freezing!” Getting dressed in the morning has devolved into something that I do to the children. I know they can dress themselves, I have videos of them doing it that you’ve seen, but for some reason, they just won’t do it anymore. Recently, there is more struggle in our house over putting on clothes than anything else

Two days ago, my friend Brenda and her five-year-old daughter, Gerren, came to stay with us. We were all getting ready to go out when I saw Gerren walk outside only to come back in. She said, “It’s cold outside. I’m going to put on my coat.” Speechless, I looked at Brenda, who explained that she has never forced Gerren to put on a coat. “She knows when she’s hot or cold,” Brenda said matter-of-factly. 

I then called my cousin, Daisy, for advice. She said three words: “Trust. Your. Children.”

I was ready for a change. I told my husband and nanny that from now on, we would ask the children one time in the morning (which is when the house at its coldest) if they wanted to put on warmer clothes, if they say no, we would not force them. And before going out, we would not dress any of the children for them. If someone was not dressed by the time we were ready to go out to play, then an adult would stay home with that child. I then explained all of this to the children, who looked at me and nodded. 

The next morning, while I hung out in my cashmere sweater and wool socks, Mackenzie decided that she wanted to be naked. This lasted for three hours. Brooke wore one thin layer the entire day. I kept my promise and said nothing. Before we went out, I said to them very calmly, “Mama is going to get ready right now. After I’m done, I’m going to the park. If you want to come, then you need to change into these clothes. If you do not have your clothes on by the time I’m ready, you will stay home with Ayi (our nanny).” They got distracted a couple times, but with one quick reminder from me and another from their nanny, they proactively dressed themselves from head to toe. 

It turns out I was the one who needed to change. I was responsible for creating the power struggle because I thought I knew better. I was forcing them to put on clothes because I didn’t want them to get sick. I let go of those fears and trusted that they know best whether they are hot or cold. As I’m writing this one week later, we’ve had no struggle over clothing (and no one is sick). I’m still in shock over how smoothly things are going in this regard. 

If right now, you and your children are struggling over something, stop looking at what’s wrong with them. It is YOU that needs to do the changing. And when you do, so will they. 

For those of you with young children: Peace. Is. Possible.

Reader Comments (10)

  1. Oh, how I struggled with this over the winter! My girls — who had never worn winter gear — hated wearing coats and mitts, and would refuse. I finally decided to have them open the door and check the temperature. If they still refused to wear winter gear, I let them go out the door with whatever, but I’d bring their coats, mitts, etc with us. Inevitably, they’d eventually get cold and ask for their coats. If I hadn’t done this, we would never have gotten outside! I still have to use this approach today — have them step outside and then decide. I encourage them to wear what I think is going to help them stay most comfortable, and then I let it go.

    Friday, May 24th, 2013 10:46 pm | Zoe - SlowMama
  2. Love hearing your experience. Thanks for sharing, Zoe!

    Saturday, May 25th, 2013 3:20 pm | Stephanie Woo
  3. Thank you for sharing. We are having the same struggle in our home and I am grateful for your perspective and experience. I am going to try it out today!

    Tuesday, May 28th, 2013 5:18 pm | Chelsea
  4. Chelsea,

    Let me know how it goes!


    Tuesday, May 28th, 2013 5:39 pm | Stephanie Woo
  5. Well….yes and no.
    My children (twin boys age 3.4) prefer to be naked all of the time.
    To get them to put on clothes is the source of stress every single day.
    I don’t have the option of saying “if you don’t get dressed you stay home” because there is no one at home to stay home with! It’s just me.
    And if one twin gets dressed (and yes, they dress themselves) and the other one is not….that’s not fair to stay home.
    Forget about ME ‘dressing’ them. If they don’t want to get dressed, they will just take it right back off.
    I let them wear whatever they want. That is not the issue. You want to wear rainboots on a sunny day? Go right ahead.
    The issue is CLOTHING, period.
    Any advice for a twin mom of future nudists?

    Thursday, May 30th, 2013 6:02 pm | Pufferandthebabyfish
  6. Hi Pufferandthebabyfish,

    I hear the challenges of being a single parent! I wanted to provide some suggestions to your need of advice.

    It sounds like your children prefer being naked and how lovely that is that you allow for that at home. It also sounds like your children are resisting clothing for times to go out. Perhaps some boundaries and rules need to be in place from a kind and firm approach. It also sounds like you needs some natural and logical consequences if your children are and are not dressed.

    Here are some ideas to toy with:

    1. Letting them know your expectations and boundaries. It sounds like the minimum boundaries is that their top, bottom and feet are covered when in public.

    2. Letting them contribute to their clothing. Let them pick out their clothing.

    3. Preparation. Let them know what the plan is for the next day so they can make an informed decision of what to wear. Then let them pick out their clothing the night before.

    4. Play Pretend. This is another way of preparation that can be fun too. Play pretend with them about what would you wear in particular weather. For example, what would someone where when it rains? Snows? Sunny? Why would you wear that when it rains? Snows? Sunny? And what if there is resistance to this game and they say something like when it snows we wear flip flops. You could make it funny and say sure let’s give it a try. Let’s all get our flip flops on and walk in the snow. You could pretend how cold your feet are and then decide to wear socks with your flip flops to keep your feet warm in the snow. Then you can pretend how wet your feet are in your socks and change into rain boots. I think the less you get upset with getting the right answer the funner and funnier it gets with young children. If you want to really get real you could even get a spray bottle to make rain, crushed ice for snow, blow dryer for a hot day. Use your imagination and FUN!

    5. Let them know your expectations and boundaries again. Be sure to be clear and repeat your expectation and boundaries. Example: They can choose their own clothes and if they can’t make a choice then you will choose for them.

    6. Finding natural and logical consequences that can actually work. Oh and don’t fall into power struggles with them! Let’s say they do not want to wear shoes then you can say “Great! No problem! No shoes then you can be in the stroller until you wear them. Let’s say they do not want to wear pants then you can say “Oh I hear you don’t want to wear pants. That’s fine. If you don’t want to wear pants then you can wear this long shirt so your bottom will still be covered but not restricting your legs”. It’s all about how to make it seem like they are empowered and you are helping them to achieve that empowerment.

    7. Empathy and Validation! Basically you are trying to find a middle ground that will work for you and them with natural and logical consequences. And if it doesn’t work for them you can validate their their big feelings whether it be sad, angry, frustrated, disappointed, etc. In fact you can also let them know that you will still be going to (where ever it is) and they can have their big feelings of crying, yelling, shouting (probably easiest if in the stroller) while you are in public. This one is hard though because you will have to be strong not to let others’ judgment, stares and opinions stray you from why you are doing what you are doing as a parent.

    7. Follow through is ABSOLUTELY key for natural and logical consequences to work. Mistakes will also happen on your part. And that is part of the learning process for you too of guessing what natural and logical consequence will work best for the situation.

    8. Self Empathy! Parenting is freaking hard let alone being out numbered! Furthermore being a single parent is like being a superhero all the time even when you don’t have the energy too!

    Good Luck!
    Daisy, Stephanie’s cousin 🙂

    Saturday, June 1st, 2013 9:09 pm | Daisy
  7. Whoa. Reading the article and comments to it almost has me crying here. For a few weeks now, it has become apparent that my babe is a dreamer. She doesn’t refuse to get dressed, she just lives in hger own little world where getting dressed in the morning or putting on pyjamas at night does not seem to be as enticing as playing pretend with herself (and some imaginary friends), singing, or just looking around. It’s gotten tough since she realized that in the winter, we have to get up before dawn so that she gets to play in kindergarten before they go outside. She loves (and according to her teachers is very concentrated when) doing Montessori activities in kindergarten.
    Out of desperation, I have now taken to yelling to get her out of her funk and just even hear me – never mind listening to what I’m saying.
    There are plenty of additional specifics that make our situation tough to explain: I’m a single parent, she’s biracial and bilingual to name a very few.
    It feels good and so bad as well to hear that others are struggling too and that there ARE ideas to solve the getting dressed “issue”. Thank you, all of you.

    Thursday, January 9th, 2014 4:53 am | Maria
  8. I am so glad you posted this! I was a little down, thinking I was the only one struggling!
    Recently my boys(usually one or the other, never both at the same time) have become super fussy after a peaceful breakfast. It’s like they call out Dr. Jekyll and are a totally different child. They have multiple(but not too many) clothing options, sock and shoe choices too. They say “I can’t” for things the can totally do, before they even try to do it(shoes especially?!). Leaving them is not an option as everyone has to be at school/work at a specific time. I have even tried getting them up earlier. Everything starts out well, but then goes down hill after. But like I said, it can be one child one day, then the other the next- no rhyme or reason. It’s not like we put on their shoes for them at other times and theyre being spoiled and lazy. I wish I could capture the “whine” in this post: )
    Like Zoe, I do bring the coat/mittens in case they change their mind. Thanks for letting us know we’re not alone!

    Monday, January 13th, 2014 2:39 pm | Blair
  9. I am always curious about posts like these and what happened after this one incident. Do your kids now peacefully dress themselves every time? Does this work 50% of the time? I try this and it works for about a few days. Why do we always have to act like we’ve discovered the silver bullet?

    Monday, July 9th, 2018 11:49 am | Jamie
  10. thank you montessorionthedouble for giving me wonderful information

    Monday, December 23rd, 2019 4:07 am | rohit aggarwal

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