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I let my 5-year-old daughter dress herself for a week, and she blew my mind

Before you become a parent, you expect to go to battle with your toddler over eating peas and carrots. You understand it might take you 30 additional minutes to walk out the door in the morning because 20 of those minutes consist of your preschooler realizing, after you’ve strapped her into her car seat, that she has to go number two. And you know the day will come when she will refuse to wear any article of clothing you’ve purchased at the store because it totally doesn’t fit her newfound sense of style, which, from what you can tell, falls somewhere between Sofia the First and a Bratz doll.

Had you told me that last parenting reality would take place when my daughter turned 5 and not 13, I would have insisted you didn’t know my daughter. No, no, my daughter is exceptionally agreeable, the kind of kid who will gobble up broccoli rabe and meatloaf with sun-dried tomatoes. The daughter of your dreams who listens when you ask her to put away her toys and to stop calling her little brother “Señor Poopie Pants.”

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And then one day, this angel decided to kick up the mother of all tantrum storms. Ten minutes before we had to leave for camp, she declared that the clothes I had put out for her to wear were, in her own words, “ridiculous.”

Ridiculous. A fighting word if ever I heard one. I glanced down at my own threads to make sure my kid wasn’t on to something. Nice dress, maybe a little too prom-ish for a Tuesday morning, but grounded with flatforms, which I guess are the very definition of ridiculous. Oh shit. Have I become a mom who dresses herself like two bombastic clowns? I can’t say I wasn’t intrigued to find out what was happening in my child’s head. Ever so calmly, while keeping one eye on the clock and ignoring every busy-mom impulse I had to fling the plaid tunic over her head and make it a pants-less day, I asked her to elaborate.

She started to cry — so utterly preposterous was this outfit I had selected that she felt the injustice deep in her bones. “It’s ugly, Mommy,” she sniffed. “It’s got this red thing” — note: a stripe that made the plaid pattern possible — “and red is not my thing. You knew it wasn’t my thing, Mommy, but you’re making me wear this, and I hate it!” Oh, the sobbing. No issue of Vogue, where you can always find something plaid these days, was going to relieve my daughter’s new sense of inequality.

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It was as if the wool had suddenly been lifted from her eyes, and nothing would ever be the same again: Mom gets to choose her own clothing, and she doesn’t. Without ever having a formal conversation about style and clothes, she got the message from me loud and clear — fashion is a form of personal expression and a creative outlet on even the dullest of mornings. She wanted in. I wanted to pick my battles and be free of this meaningless and silly struggle over something that doesn’t amount to much.

And so, starting that morning, I told her she could dress herself without any interference from me. If she chose boots in July, her feet would have to beg her to kick those things off, because she wasn’t about to hear a peep from me. Can a 5-year-old be trusted? Let’s find out.

Day 1: Rainbows and long sleeves

Image: Credit: Lisa Fogarty

New York is experiencing a fairly hot summer — 90-plus degrees F hot. Eff that, though, because my daughter needed to get her cat on, and naturally felines love rainbow skirts and purple sneakers sans socks. She didn’t complain once about the long-sleeved shirt, though I had to bite my tongue at her decision to eliminate socks from her wardrobe. The second she returned home from camp, I inspected her feet for signs of blisters. Not one. Which proves I’m paying good money for a camp program that doesn’t force her to run laps or kick a soccer ball. Hmm… This clothing experiment may force me to re-evaluate our summer activities.

Day 2: A swimsuit cover-up

Image: Lisa Fogarty

Little girl was clearly feeling her oats on day 2. Instead of opting for actual clothing, she appeared at breakfast wearing this sparkly, hooded Sofia the First swimsuit cover-up — without a swimsuit underneath — and did I mention she also decided that her hair was now part of her look? Take a guess how long it took me to untangle her hair when she returned home from camp! Ding, ding, ding — 30 minutes for the win! By far this was my least favorite of her clothing choices this week.

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Day 3: Denim vest coolness

Image: Lisa Fogarty

Admittedly my daughter blew me away with this look. She opted to not sport a shirt beneath her denim vest, but both her shorts and sleeveless top were perfectly suited for the hot weather. The bow headband in her hair was one she made using about $3 worth of materials a few weeks ago. It’s obviously not the work of a professional, but she wore it — and this entire outfit — proudly.

Day 4: Rainbow pants

Image: Lisa Fogarty

I’m not sure what inspired my kid to choose long pants on a 94-degree F day, but I have a suspicion the rainbows had everything to do with it. Her shirt, sneakers and lavender socks (whew!) were on point, and other than to say, “Hey, it’s crazy hot out today,” I bit my tongue about her pants. Sometimes the less you say, the better: Five minutes before we had to walk out the door, she said, “Mommy, I think I’m going to change my pants. They’re pretty, but it’s just too darn hot out!”

Day 5: Fancy blouse

Image: Lisa Fogarty

The boho blouse: a little too fancy for Friday camp, stark white and covered in juice by 1 p.m. The shorts: seasonal (hurray!). Worth mentioning: When I first brought this blouse home from the store for her to wear to a birthday party, she abhorred it. My, how things change when kids feel in control of their own clothing decisions.

Day 6: Christmas in August

gold dress
Image: Lisa Fogarty

Oh well, you can’t expect your 5-year-old to make sensible decisions all the time. On the last day of my experiment (which has morphed into everyday life for us), my lovely daughter strutted out to the living room wearing her gold Christmas dress from last year — a dress that barely fits her — and sequin purple slippers that make my feet sweat just thinking about them. That red bow headband — also from the Christmas collection. Since it was Saturday, we didn’t get to try out this look at camp, thank God, and by noon the dress was rolled up in a ball on her bedroom floor.

Moral of the story: Our kids really can make good decisions without our input. Better to save our nitpicking for the many other things that require it — clothing, for me, is no longer one.

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