Yes, Her Shirt Is Backwards. No, I Do Not Care.

It may come as no surprise to most of you that independence is something I believe in fiercely. In fact, it was Almost-Husband’s non-conformist, free-thinking attitude that first attracted me to him upon our first meeting way back when I was 16.

It follows naturally then that now, at 28, it is a value we both wish to instill in our daughter. We also want her to have a sense of creativity, competency, and confidence. I’m assuming most of you feel the same to one degree or another.

The thing is, these are not lessons that can be taught with words alone, especially when your child is very young. Instead, they are taught not only by our actions, but by our reactions to daily occurrences. We must be mindful of the kind of messages we are sending if we want to raise children with a healthy sense of self.

To illustrate these types of non-verbal lessons, let’s look at the example that seems to be drawing the biggest reaction in my daughter’s life right now: dressing herself.

We let The Princess pick out her own clothes each day, the only exception being occasions where we are expected to dress up (weddings, holidays, etc), in which case she still gets to choose from pre-approved options. I want her to feel free to express herself in anyway she chooses and to develop her own sense of style, which often results in hilariously mismatched outfits, because let’s face it, 2 year olds don’t really care if vertical stripes go with horizontal stripes.

They also don’t care what the weather is like or whether their clothing is on backwards…

You may note that both her shirt and her shoes are on backwards. What you can’t see in this picture is that it was also 80-something degrees out. You also can’t see the attempts at getting her to at least put on shorts.

“Mommy’s wearing shorts. Daddy’s wearing shorts. Do you want shorts?” I ask, as my child runs up to me with a pair of long pants.

“No, just fine,” she replies.

“Are you sure? It’s hot out.”

“Just fine,” she repeats, a bit more emphatically.

I shrug and let her continue. When she starts sweating she’ll change her mind, or she’ll learn to deal with the consequences of her decisions. Either way, it’s her body, not mine.

As she puts her shirt on, I gently point out that it’s backwards. She does not care, once again replying with “just fine.” We do the whole dance again when she puts her shoes on the wrong feet. We point out what’s “wrong” and offer to help, but we don’t push the issue or force her to change. There is a reason for this. A few reasons, actually.

The first has to do with fostering independence. We don’t want her to feel like she absolutely has to do something one way simply because that’s how everyone else is doing it. We want her to know that it’s okay to think outside the box and march to the beat of her own drum. Just think of all the great inventions and advances we would have missed out on if no one dared to try anything different!

The second reason, which may be even more important, has to do with developing her inner voice and her sense of competency.  It’s the same reason I don’t refold the towels in front of her when she’s helping with the laundry. Or, for a more concrete example, if a child brings you a drawing that looks like this…

…and tells you that it’s a bird, you don’t say, “That looks like crap. You should have done it this way…”. You tell them it’s a very nice bird. She’s proud of accomplishing a task and I don’t want to trample on that. By constantly correcting a child, you’re giving them the message that they are always wrong. I don’t know about you, but I do not want my child’s inner voice to be one that says, “I never do anything right. I’m stupid. I fail at everything.” I want her to feel like she’s capable and to celebrate her accomplishments so that she keeps practicing those skills and naturally progressing, instead of giving up.

The third reason really comes down to a simple phrase I heard my grandmother use quite often, “pick your battles.” Why waste energy on something as silly as clothing? If you make everything a fight, kids learn to be secretive or combative. If they feel you are on their side, they are more willing to listen to you when you offer advice.

Whether it’s dressing herself or some other task, we help her when she asks for it and offer help when she looks like she’s struggling, but we don’t push or step in unless it is a health or safety concern. 

I believe children learn best through exploration and encouragement. I also believe it is my job to merely guide her as she develops at her own pace. To me, being a successful parent is raising a child into an adult who is capable of thinking for his or herself and running their own lives. To get there, we must begin with allowing them to master tasks on their own, started with the basics and increasing with difficulty as they grow mature.

Tomorrow it will be more household chores. In a few years, it will be schoolwork. Before I know it, it will be bigger decisions, like choosing the right career path. But today it is clothes, and I embrace her backwards shirt.