On Independence: Allowing the Young Child to Dress Himself

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If you are the parent of a Primary child (or were at some point in the recent past), you have likely noticed the abundance of creativity your child exhibits when getting dressed in the morning. From mismatched prints and two different socks to ill-fitting, sometimes inside out, backwards, or even upside-down articles of clothing – we’ve seen it all. Despite the hilariousness that sometimes ensues, this is a very important part of your child’s day. Find out more below. 

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This photo series is by Melinda Smith, of her youngest son Jacob

Beginning around the age of two (and sometimes as early as 18 months), a child will begin to dress himself. This, like many skills to master, can become a sort of obsession, presenting as willfully choosing his clothing, changing that clothing several times a day, and often becoming extremely frustrated or angry if anyone tries to interfere with that!

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From the Montessori perspective, this is a wonderful thing. From a parenting perspective, it can prove frustrating at times, especially in the morning when there is a time constraint, and many people in the same household may be trying to beat the clock. However, it is very important that we allow our children the time and space to dress themselves.

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Cab Yau, mother of three and Guide of Villa di Maria’s Parent-Child course, says, “We must give our children opportunities to practice decision making, and dressing is such an easy way to do this. Dressing oneself allows not just for choice making (which is huge!) but it also offers the gift of independence – not only in choosing for oneself but the opportunity to fundamentally care for oneself.”

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Above: Cab’s youngest daughter chose to wear a necklace as a headband to Primary one day

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A young Primary child shows off the (backwards) shoes she put on all by herself

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In the Children’s House, winter coats are zipped up onto hangers every morning in the winter, even though this takes quite a bit of time for some children

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We encourage parents of young children to allow them to dress themselves every day. And we promise, it gets easier! Below, a few tips on setting the stage.

  1. Hang or fold clothing within reach your child’s reach.
    A hanging closet rod can provide a temporary solution if the built-in rod is too high for your child. Or choose low open shelving for clothing to be easily seen and reached.
  2. Rotate in appropriate clothing for the season.
    Keeping seasonally appropriate clothing available, while putting unseasonal clothing out of sight will avoid many power struggles in the morning. If the strapless dress or favorite pair of shorts are not available to put on during the winter months, your child will choose the long-sleeved dress or warm pants instead!
  3. Allow extra time in the morning for self-dressing.
    We understand how hard it is to get out the door in the morning on time. And being on time is important! Wake your child up five or ten minutes early if getting dressed is taking longer than you’d like.
  4. Avoid the temptation to hover.
    A child can feel rushed and judged if he is constantly watched while he is completing a task; this is the same inside the classroom and at home! Instead of standing over your child as she gets dressed, step out of the room after expectations are set. A simple, “It’s time to get dressed – it’s going to be very cold today!” before allowing your child to get dressed is a good prompt. Also, not being in the room will prevent your child from asking you for help or giving up on getting dressed, or prevent you from stepping in to help before your child really needs it.
  5. Limit the amount of clothing.
    If a child has too many options, he can become overwhelmed easily. Also, it is quite difficult for him to maintain a neat and tidy closet or shelf if there are too many clothes.

While not necessary, consider a Montessori-inspired clothing rack (this may be a good option if you have multiple children). How cute is this one?