As kids grow, parents and caregivers gradually relinquish hands-on involvement in their children’s personal grooming and become supervisors of the process – all the while hoping to instill in their kids a desire to look and feel at their best.

We asked child development expert Lisa B. Fiore, Ph.D., dean of faculty and a professor who teaches lifespan development courses in early childhood education and psychology at Lesley University in Cambridge, for her best advice on children’s dress and makeup.

As children become “their own persons” in terms of choosing how to dress, what are some things parents and caregivers should keep in mind?

What people wear sends a message to others, whether we intend to or not. It’s the first impression people have of you, and it’s important to note that. For younger children (infants – toddlers), this is less of an issue because adults choose and buy their clothing for them. They may express a preference in terms of color or fabric in toddler years, but typically this isn’t a struggle.

Middle school and high school years tend to be the time when parents and children feel tension about clothing choices. For example, a boy insists he has to have one kind of Nike basketball socks to wear to his basketball games because “that’s what everyone’s wearing.”

Parents should always feel free to offer their opinions about children’s clothing choices but shouldn’t dictate clothing decisions in an authoritarian manner. Democratic decision making might mean, for example, that everyone gets a vote, but the parent’s vote gets extra emphasis because he or she is paying for the clothing.

If a parent is concerned that her daughter’s clothing is too seductive or revealing, discuss what makes her feel happy or good or beautiful when she wears those outfits. Perhaps there are images of beautiful girls and women that offer a different perspective on beauty. The book The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf, offers some insights (with a feminist bent) into ways that women fall into traps relating to their images and self-confidence. This book, while perhaps advanced reading for younger high schoolers, may provoke some interesting conversations about why women make certain choices relating to physical appearance.

If you only offer two or three choices to your toddler, are you limiting their self-expression?

Offering toddlers two or three choices is not at all limiting to them at their stage of development. Their cognitive development is such that if you take one cookie, and they say they want two, and you turn around and break the cookie in half and then offer them two pieces, it might just satisfy them! This is not the case as they get older, when they understand more about the qualities of mass and volume. The most important factor is the choice, and not how many choices they have.

What are some other issues to be aware of relative to children’s dress at various ages?  


Clothes are fairly simple for children’s needs, but not so for the caregivers who buy them! It’s often important to the caregivers how their children look, and while we naturally look critically at the clothes preteen and teenage girls wear, which seem a bit advanced for their years, there are some baby clothes that are designed to be little versions of grown-up clothing. It’s something to notice and be mindful of, even though we think of babies as “cute” when they sport these fashions. Cultural traditions and practices relating to clothing and jewelry vary from family to family, so withholding judgment is important. Clothing also conveys societal messages about gender, so the clothing parents choose for their babies may send a message about values and perception, such as sports themes or cars/planes/trains clothing for boys and pink, frilly, princess themes for girls.


Children at this age are happy to exercise their opinions and choices relating to clothing, which can be both a blessing and a supreme challenge. Versatility of clothing is one factor that parents might keep in mind for easy access in changing diapers. When children are toilet-trained, the choices become broader, although kids may need assistance with zippers, buttons and other items. Be mindful of this because children’s needs for autonomy and desire to be able to do things on their own are important to support and instill.

Elementary Schoolers

Children at this age tend to be quite active, and their clothing is still largely the parents’ or caregivers’ choice. Children may start to express preferences (if they haven’t already) for certain fabrics, colors and styles. It’s common for parents to buy one favorite style of pants in four different colors so that a child can have some variety while staying true to a favorite look or feel, and parents should take their cues from their children.

It’s an interesting balance for parents to strike, offering new options and challenging children’s developing abilities and awareness. For example, my son doesn’t feel comfortable in pants with zippers and button closures, and I’ve bought him elastic-waist pants for years. As a result, he still hasn’t developed the dexterity to open and close those button closures well, and thus, a cycle has been created.

Trends among children appear more often now, as their awareness of others grows. Kids – especially girls – notice who’s wearing what, and it’s important to be mindful of children’s perceptions of each other so you can anticipate your own child’s reaction to criticism about clothing that used to be beloved, for example, if a child suddenly feels sad that someone said her coat is “puffy.”

Middle and High Schoolers

Children in middle school are experiencing more rapid physical changes than high schoolers, and they may feel embarrassed if, for example, they now have noticeable breasts that others can notice, too. They may opt for more concealing clothing, or layers, to cover up in middle school, and in high school they may choose to wear more revealing clothing to celebrate what they now perceive as an asset.

Children look to peers to know what’s “cool” or “in” and therefore might request clothing items that aren’t the parents’ first choice. Try not to express disdain or judgment. Ask questions instead. Why do they think this item of clothing is a must-have or they’ll be shunned? What is it about this item of clothing that makes them feel happy or special or handsome? It’s a nice way to open lines of communication and learn about what they value.

Some parents, who refuse to allow a child to wear a certain item of clothing, have been surprised to learn that the child might change clothing at school to wear that specific item. This is an important signal that an opportunity for conversation is present.

This also applies to make-up choices for girls. Some families have strict rules about make-up – how much, when, and where. Other families don’t have rigid rules, but they do speak about what might be appropriate, and – more importantly – what’s most healthy. Many cosmetics contain chemicals that can cause allergic reactions, skin breakouts and other issues.

For information on personal grooming for babies to teens, click here.  

Mary Alice Cookson is associate editor of Boston Parents Paper.