“If a child refuses to wear a coat, there is a reason for that, and with a bit of creativity and effort it is possible to discover the reason and (dis)solve the problem. Maybe they are not cold.🤭”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge
“When I try to get my two-year-old daughter to wear her coat when we are outside in the cold, she refuses! When I repeatedly offer her her coat she sometimes has a meltdown! Help! How can I get her to wear it?”
First, why do parents so often think it important to wear a warm coat in the cold?
🥶 They imagine themselves without a coat feeling painfully cold and want to ensure that their beloved child does not suffer in that way.
🤧 They fear their child catching a cold or flu (or in extreme cold, frostbite) and suffering terribly.
🙈 They may be concerned about looking like an uncaring irresponsible parent whose children should be taken away (which they would not want, resulting in terrible suffering).
👧🏻 Parents who think that wearing a warm coat in the winter cold is so important that in the event that the child disagrees, it is necessary to force them to put the coat on, even if that itself causes a lot of distress for the child, tend to think that especially young children “are too young to know what’s good for them” or “are too young to make such decisions”.
🚨 They think that to fail to enforce coat wearing would be to fail to honour their parental duty of care to their children.
Parents obviously do have a duty of care to their children, and it is true that especially young children may be unaware of the danger of frostbite in extremely low temperatures. Indeed, at skiing resorts there are sometimes little mirrors at the chairlifts, etc., reminding people to check their nose for signs of potential frostbite. And it might take some creativity to explain/show this danger to a pre-verbal child. (More about this later.)
However, parents often think it necessary to enforce coat wearing even in relatively mild temperatures in which there is absolutely no risk of frostbite. This causes no end of unnecessary strife, both for the child and for the parent, so here is a different way of thinking about it—a way that takes children seriously as individuals with as much right to reject the idea of wearing a coat as adults have.
First, think about how it would seem to you if it were an adult being forced to wear a coat. Imagine if someone said:
“When I try to get my wife to wear her coat when we are outside in the cold, she refuses! When I repeatedly offer her her coat she sometimes has a meltdown! Help! How can I get her to wear it?”
You might see that the husband loves his wife and that he thinks she needs to wear her coat, but are you not also thinking that ultimately it is for her to decide, and that if she doesn’t want to wear her coat, really he should back off and stop trying to get her to wear her coat in the cold? Repeated requests get into haranguing territory.
As it happens, I myself dislike wearing coats and do without if I can possibly find a way. (I also hate umbrellas and would rather get soaked in the rain than carry an umbrella, which other people find very strange, but I digress.) So here are some ideas for helping your child stay warm in the cold without a coat:
⛷️ Several layers including a loose-fitting one to trap warm air. (My warmest skiwear is my thin breathable waterproof windproof very loose men’s high-bib salopettes (cargo overalls)—they trap a lot of lovely warm air and they are much more comfortable than ski trousers that to me feel constricting at my waist (not to mention itchy labels and buttons, etc), and they are much warmer than bulky insulated ski trousers too!)
🧶 Soft merino wool or man-made equivalent base layers worn inside out to avoid any scratchy seams or labels (you yourself may not bothered by seams and tags but some of us are very bothered by them, and it is torture; children’s skin can be quite sensitive)
🧤 Pay attention to what kinds of fabrics the child likes and dislikes, and in what kinds of cut (and what colours too). Some clothes are too constricting in general, or are scratchy or itchy or constricting at the neck or cuffs; sometimes children dislike too-loose layers that flap about. I used to find the hood of my winter wool coat very scratchy around my neck as a child. And I can’t wear any coat or ski jacket with Velcro on it, because my hair gets caught in it, causing a lot of pain.
🧥 Or maybe it is just this particular coat the child detests. Maybe a different coat would delight them.
🟥 Hand and feet warmers
The point is: there is a reason the child doesn’t want to wear a coat, and with a bit of creativity and effort it is possible to discover the reason and (dis)solve the problem.
The solution might not necessarily involve the children dressing as warmly as you think they should. Many children simply do not feel the cold the way you or I might, and if so, there is really no need for them to be as bundled up as you might prefer them to be.
It never even occurred to me to try to get my children to wear a coat or dress more warmly than they wanted to. Sometimes they wore a coat. Other times not, and were none the worse for it.
If a child wants to go out without a coat or other warm attire, and you think that will turn out to be a mistake, simply take the coats and other warm clothes with you so that they are available should the child want them later. Problem solved. No need for all these stressful battles at all.
Do be sure to take the coats and other warm layers with you rather than leaving them behind to teach the children a lesson for failing to listen to your wisdom. Subjecting them to so-called ‘natural consequences’ is unkind and coercive, not taking children seriously. (It also assumes a mistaken idea of how children learn, and of the nature of their minds, as explained elsewhere on this site.)
And if you are actually worried that someone might think you an unfit parent if your child is outside in the winter without a coat on, having the coat with you would solve that concern too.
So what about the real issue of frostbite? This is one of those cases in which a coercive approach can be disastrous. You might manage to force a child to wear a coat in your presence, but then when you are not there, they might well not heed your rule. Whereas if your child is unaccustomed to being coerced the way most children are, when it really is in their interests to listen to you, they are far more likely to do so, because you have not destroyed their trust in you. You are a trusted consultant who obviously cares about their wishes.
The coercive approach is particularly dangerous with young children who might not yet be able to understand our explanations of the danger of frostbite so really do need to be able to trust that we are not just trying to thwart them.
All this talk of winter cold reminds me of the time when we were staying somewhere extremely cold with huge snow banks everywhere, and my young child wanted me to take her to the park where there was a slide and swings. After checking just how cold it was outside, we got dressed up in many layers, complete with insulated jackets, scarves, woolly hats, and mittens with handwarmers in them, and we bravely stepped outside. The cold hit me like a truck. I have never before or since experienced such cold. I felt as if I could not breathe. My jaw seemed to seize up. Undeterred, my daughter set off down the driveway towards the road. Just as I was beginning to think that this excursion might be literally risking death, when we had only just reached the bottom of the short driveway, my daughter said decisively, “Let’s go back inside. It’s too cold.” (Phew!)
Thoughts? Comments? Questions?
- ‘Protection’ against a child’s will is coercion not protection
- What Taking Children Seriously taught me about resolving conflicts
- What if my child doesn’t want to leave the park?