Letting Kids Choose Their Clothes (And Their Faith)

By Wendy Thomas Russell | August 9, 2012 | 12 comments

When my daughter was still an infant, my husband and I took her to a local coffee shop for breakfast. At the booth over was an early-30s couple, each with multiple tattoos and piercings and jet-black hair to match their clothes. I wouldn’t have paid much attention to the couple except for the company they kept. Sitting across from them sat a little girl dressed head-to-toe in pink. She was their daughter. In addition to a pretty pink dress and shoes to match, the 6-year-old wore a shimmering headband, which held back a long mane of perfectly combed, blond hair.

As the family stood up to leave, it was impossible not to notice:  These two Morrissey types had given birth to a Barbie doll. The mother caught me mid-smile, and smiled back. “All she wears is pink” she told me. “I buy her all these black T-shirts, but she won’t touch any of them.”

After they left, I thought: I love that little family. And now, all these years later, I still do.

There is something I viscerally respond to when parents don’t expect their children to be Mini-Mes, when they let their children’s individuality outweigh our own personal preferences, or even embarrassment. My reaction was the same one I experienced many years later when I read an incredibly sweet and supportive wedding speech written by the father of a lesbian bride.

Embracing every part of our children that makes them different from us is the true test of our unconditional love. We are showing them, in no uncertain terms, that we want to support them on their life journeys — not just drag them behind us on ours.

After my daughter told me, at 5 years old, that “God made us,” I nearly panicked. After pacing the kitchen and explaining the contents of the ill-fated (or so I thought) conversation, my husband uttered 14 words that changed everything for me.

“To me,” he said, “it’s what she does in life that matters — not what she believes.”

It was my “Aha” moment. And in everything I’ve done or said to Maxine since then, this mantra — it’s what you do in life that matters, not what you believe — has propelled me forward in my work, and in my life.

Now that my daughter is almost 7, I understand all too well the plight of the hipsters in the coffee shop. Sometimes I feel the tug of opposition when we’re out shopping and Maxine gravitates toward the bright, almost florescent, prom-style dresses that look like they’ve been bedazzled by Cher.

But I do try very hard to support her choices. Because letting our kid dress like “an Australian’s nightmare,” as Spinal Tap’s long-suffering manager Ian Faith so eloquently put it, is  the right thing to do. By allowing our children to choose what they like, we are affirming that their opinions are valid, that their taste is respected. We are telling them it’s better than okay to be who they are; it’s wonderful.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we need to allow or support every choice they want to make. But let’s do keep our eyes on the goal here: to allow our kids to explore the world and make reasonable choices.


  1. Jamie says:

    Just wait till she raids your makeup. My daughter, age 11, came out wearing more makeup for her first day of middle school than I have worn in a month. (And there is no way to get all that lipstick off in 3 minutes before the car has to leave the driveway.) Point is — she had started this summer asking to wear lip gloss. I acquiesced. Then I noticed she had found some mascara. Didn’t say anything. Then she goes all-whore on me first day of school.

  2. MarkY says:

    I think that there is a difference between fashion choices and rationality. Faith (irrationality) I think is a hindrance to a person’s ability to learn so I think it is important, when my daughter makes a faith statement (eg. there is a god), I ask her to explain why she thinks that (I want her to discover the lack of evidence). I care about what she believes because it effects what she knows, and her ability to learn.

    • Thanks, Mark. And I do understand your hesitancy. But is your intention to make her explain why she has any important opinions that you don’t share, or just religion-related opinions? Will you ask her to explain why she “thinks” that her first boyfriend is a nice guy when you “know” he isn’t? Or why she “thinks” she wants to work in sales when she grows up, rather than something more prestigious? And even if you see a difference, are you sure she will?

      • MarkY says:

        Again, I think there is a difference between what she decides to do, vs how she thinks about things. What I am trying to teach her is a rational thought process. If she can say to me, “I understand that wearing this corset makes it hard to breathe, but I’ve decided to wear it because it is my fashion choice.” then I’ll let her. To me, not arming her with this ability to think through situations and choices is akin with allowing her to ‘learn on her own’ after she says, “I don’t wear a helmet on my motorbike because no one else does.”
        I’m not saying that I would ever stop her from doing anything like wearing goth clothing, I just want her to understand the consequences (look cool in this example).
        If she said, “I believe X religion even though some of it’s principles are irrational (I’ll treat them as metaphor).” I’d be fine with that (as long as she didn’t start protesting at funerals, or anti-gay rights demonstrations.

        • Got it, that helps, thanks. I wonder, do you see any situation in which being “irrational” is okay? What would you say/do if your child ultimately decided to do or believe something you felt was irrational? Like, I think having a bunch of kids is an irrational decision, especially when you can’t afford it. If your daughter ended up in that situation (for whatever reason, but by her own choice), would you treat her differently and/or feel you had failed as a parent?

          • MarkY says:

            I took a while to answer because the first question you asked is a good one and I can only think of one example where I really think that it’s ok to be irrational… Choosing to have few or no kids. I say this because, from an evolutionary point of view, the purpose of any animal is to spread its own genetic material, so deciding not to is irrational. You could still say that choosing to have one child rather than 5 might dive that child a better chance of successfully reproducing, therefore spreading your genetic material in a more efficient manner.
            I can’t think of any other examples but would like to hear any ideas that people might have.
            To the final questions I think I can answer by saying that we are all the best parents that we can be, and there’s a point where we have to let them work with what they’ve learnt. If my daughter can look back and say, “I made some good decisions.” then I’ll be happy. The sad thing is that the parents who I think have failed are the ones who don’t take an interest, don’t really care for what their kids will become, and don’t know that they’ve failed (or not until much later).

    • Rich Wilson says:


      Mostly a tangent into evolution but-

      “I can only think of one example where I really think that it’s ok to be irrational… Choosing to have few or no kids.”

      “from an evolutionary point of view, the purpose of any animal is to spread its own genetic material”

      I would hesitate to call that irrational. I think there’s a subtlety to ‘purpose’ kind of like the assumption some creationists have that evolution has a goal in mind (namely human intelligence). I think the desire (and I hesitate to even use that word) to make babies is an evolved trait. But I think we have also evolved the intellect to foresee things like the effects of overpopulation. So I don’t think using our intellect to imagine the future and decide that we can better help our species by not having more babies and instead educating the babies of our peers (who mostly share our same genes anyway since we’re such a homogeneous species) is irrational.

      I would say it’s rational to have as many kids as you have actually thought about having. It would be irrational to some number you don’t want because someone else has told you it’s the correct number. Process over outcome.

      • It’s interesting because, in Rich’s e-mail, he managed to get to something I think is really important in this conversation: “Rational” is not a constant. What we consider “rational” changes over time, but it also varies from person to person. In my mind, it’s irrational to have many children; in your mind, Mark, it’s irrational to have one or none. Neither of us really has the proof (as Rich so eloquently pointed out), but both of us believe we are right. Is one of us less intelligent than the other? I don’t think so. But we still disagree.

        Also, Mark, let me throw this out at you: In your first comment, you stated: “Faith (irrationality) I think is a hindrance to a person’s ability to learn.” But there are many, many brilliant minds — scientists, philosophers, politicians, doctors, etc. — who have faith in a higher power. These people have experienced absolutely no difficulty learning. In fact, they have EXCELLED in the area of learning. There is a mountain of evidence to prove that people with faith learn just fine. Yet, you obviously don’t see things that way. If irrationality is the belief in something without proof, it seems to me your statement — at least as I read it — is pretty darn irrational.

        Not everything I believe — or you believe — can be (or should need to be!) justified in words to someone else. Some things come down to a gut feeling — and I don’t believe feelings shouldn’t be dismissed as irrational or stupid. “There’s something about that guy that bothers me. I can’t put my finger on it, but I would feel better not being around him.” That’s a gut feeling that I sure as hell would want my daughter to heed, and I bet you would, too. I guess it comes down to this: I think it’s unfair to ask kids to justify their feelings/opinions/beliefs to satisfy someone else’s version of rational thought. Right now, we parents might be the “someone else.” But, someday, in the not so distant future, it could be someone else. Someone even more irrational than we are!

        • MarkY says:

          Whew, I just read the wiki page on rationality. It’s a subject that’s way beyond my understanding, and perhaps I had the definition wrong. I’ll go with “decision / choice based on reason” for now.
          I didn’t communicate my previous comments well. In the area of having kids or not I completely agree that many isn’t a good thing, I was just stating that from the point of view of your basic animal the rational decision is to have as many as you can (while maintaining their health). However I agree (to a certain extent) with the Voluntary Extinction people (http://www.vhemt.org/) who argue that the ‘right’ thing to do is not procreate at all.
          My “hindrance to learning” argument is obviously flawed. I was really referring to new learning (through experimentation) for example the recent work studying the Higgs boson. Of course, learning school-room mathematics isn’t hindered by faith or a lack thereof, but I don’t think it helps a student to have entire subjects where they can say, “God did that.”
          The idea that gut feelings are irrational I think is wrong. I think that experience allows us to make snap judgments on people’s appearance and situations. If you look at infants they are generally afraid of everything except what has become familiar to them. I think that animals have become adapted to cataloging expressions, sounds, smells and later linking them with whether or not the resulting situation was dangerous. The next time similar conditions arise a feeling of disquiet would result, and perhaps save that individual’s life.
          I think it is important for kids to learn reasoned decision making (what I’ve previously called ‘rationality’) for two main reasons:
          It will help them make good, safe decisions (and I don’t mean what clothes they decide to wear)
          It will allow hindsight with minimal regret (If you remember thinking through a decision you’ll be in a better position to say, “I did the best I could.”)

  3. Rich Wilson says:

    I had a “God made us” moment a few weeks back.

    My son and I went on a day trip to visit a cave, and on the way back stopped at a touristy gold rush town to look around. There were several small Churches, and we were discussing the crosses, and how the different Churches had slightly different looks, and how people go there to talk about God.

    And he said it. “but God isn’t real”.

    And I panicked that he was just parroting me, and tried to explain all the stuff we’ve discussed on here before, about how that’s great, but he has to come to his own conclusions, and when he’s older, and other people and…

    I’m not sure there’s anything my son could say about God that wouldn’t freak me out at this point. I should probably just trust his judgement more. But it’s easier to judge his ability to cross the road on his own than his ability to make a decision about God. Or at least I think it should be.

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Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

      Natural Wonderers is my new blog published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of my previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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