Domestic Disaster #251: It's 8:15 a.m. Your fashion-conscious preschooler can't locate her pink jeans. They're the pair she's worn daily for the past two weeks. The pants that allow her to sit on the east side of the picnic table at school with all the other designer denims. The ones that you meant to wash the ketchup out of last night. She can't go to school without them. Did you ever imagine you would be up against peer pressure in the preschool years?
After all, what's in a brand name? Wouldn't a Reebok by any other name smell as sweet?
Actually, there is some rationalization for your young clothes horse to react with passion on simple matters of dress. To begin with, 2-year-olds can become livid on any issue involving their bodies. They define who they are by the space they occupy. (This is one good reason to go gently with toilet training at this stage.) She has a strong need to choose what will be done with her physical being. A 2-year-old may not be so conscious of designer labels as she is of sameness. She likes to wear the same outfit because it is comforting. A 2-year-old feels secure in daily rituals, like putting on the same clothing day after day. You might even encounter an objection to having the outfit removed at night.
Two's may be influenced by what another classmate wears, and choose their own clothes accordingly. This goes along with the interest in "parallel play" that is in effect at this age. This is the way that very young children play "together" before they are ready to share toys and ideas with each other. You see it clearly when one child playing in the sand acts like a magnet to attract another child to do the same thing. As long as there are two buckets, they will scoop and pour contentedly, side by side.
Next, the 3-year-old. They define who they are by what they own. Marketing specialists have figured out the psychology of the 3-year-old very well. They offer not one but many toys in a line so your child will clamor to "collect them all." When you shop with a 3-year-old, his reasoning for wanting the sequined leather vest is "because I don't have one yet." If you went along with buying everything your 3-year-old wanted you might find that adding the clothes to his collection is more of a thrill than the actual wearing of the clothes. Three can be a miserly age.
Now the 4-year-old. This is when true "peer pressure" really comes on strong. At this age, a child is becoming aware of being accepted as a friend. Friendship for a 4-year-old means someone to sit beside at the snack table, someone who will give up the red paint after being asked only once, someone who will hold two swings so you can have one, someone to share a giggle with. You see children being offered food, toys and birthday invitations in exchange for friendships and favors. "I'll let you come to my party" is common currency in 4-year-old transactions.
As children try to win the approval of a class leader or potential buddy, acceptance can extend to clothing. This age is notorious for having "cliques" that include children who follow strict codes of behavior and sometimes dress.
You will find them at any school yard. The "Ghost Buster" group dominates the jungle gym while the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle" clique has domain over the grassy area. This small group of friends helps the child define who he is because he essentially sees himself in his buddies.
Often boys plays exclusively with boys and girls with girls in an expression of "I am a boy" or "I am a girl." They need to come to school wearing the clothes that let everyone recognize that they are part of one group as opposed to another.
The bottom line? You control the pocket book. Don't let your child whine you into buying what you cannot afford. This is not good discipline for either of you. Stick to a clothing budget you can live with. Take advantage of consignment shop and yard sale bargains -- the "must have" fashions of other children that lost their appeal before they were worn out. Clothes for kids should be bought with mud, paint and blood in mind. Children need adults to lend practicality to their immature thinking. This is also known as "instilling values."
Be understanding of why your child needs to follow fashion, and whenever appropriate, support his needs in other ways. Let your 2-year-old have choices within the limits you set; encourage your 3-year-old to gather stones, leaves, bottle caps and other cost-free collectibles; accommodate your 4-year-old's need for a friendship by arranging visits and outings with the classmate of his choice. Trends in preschool dressing have more to do with child development than adult standards of quality and fashion. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist and parenting counselor in Annapolis.