“You’re not wearing that!”

Letting your kids pick out their own clothes

When my son was in private school, mornings were easy. His school had a dress code, so his outfits were comprised logo-free collared shirts and grass-stain-free pants. His attire was wedding worthy and there was no whining about it.

Then we moved, and my son started attending public school. After the very first day, my second-grader came home in tears. “I was the only one dressed up!” he wailed.

I doubted this, remembering how much time I spent planning my “first day” outfit when I was a kid. In any case, mornings suddenly became more explosive. He only wanted to wear Under Armour shirts with way-too-big shorts that were hand-me-downs from his cousin. There was yelling and tears on both sides.

“You are representing our family,” I said through clenched teeth. “You cannot go to school looking like you fell out of a gym locker.”

But then I had a flashback to 11-year-old me. It was my dad’s turn to have the kids for the weekend, so I’d gone back-to-school shopping with his secretary. Suzie had massive ’80s hair, glossy lips and spiky shoes, and she drove a blue T-Bird while smoking skinny cigarettes. She was everything my mom was not—and I was bewitched.

She picked out my skirts (they were short), my tops (they were flashy), my earrings (they were dangly) and my shoes (they were not appropriate). Watch out, sixth grade, I was a walking scene from “Flashdance,” and I loved it.

Later that night at home, I yelled to my mom, “I am going to give you a fashion show!” I floated and twirled in my new clothes, feeling more beautiful and fabulous than ever before, until I saw my mom’s face. It was red and twisted and pissed. I caught words from her end of the phone conversation with my dad: “Floozy. Harlot. Goddamn receipt.”

My inner Suzie was about to get returned to the mall. So I did what any good tween would do when she heard her mother stomping up the stairs. I grabbed a peach miniskirt from the doomed pile and tossed it under my bed.

I sulked and screamed. Begged and pleaded. But it was no use. We were zooming down I-295 to return bags of “trampy” clothes. In retrospect, part of me was relieved. My corduroy-jumper-wearing self wasn’t ready to commit to the high-banged, screw-modesty, grown-up woman those clothes represented.

Later on, after I unpacked my sensible shirts and flat-soled shoes, I pulled the peach mini from under my bed and pulled it on over my pajamas. I sauntered, swayed and shimmied all over my room.

“Take that, mom,” I smirked.

I never dared wear that skirt out in public. In fact, I forgot about its secret place under my bed until a few years later when we replaced the carpet. And by then my mom was more focused on the six-pack of Zima that was under there than a dusty contraband skirt.

As I watched my teary-eyed son debate for his right to wear comfortable clothes to school, I relented. He is a smart, kind, sweet boy. If revolting against collars and pleats gives him authority over his sense of style and self, so be it. He’s figuring out who he is, and what he chooses to wear is part of that. Besides, there are bigger parenting hills to die upon, Suzie skirts notwithstanding.

Maggie Knowles used to cover the dining and theater scene in Boston. Then she had her son, so now she writes about all things kid. She and her family live in Yarmouth, where she gardens, keeps bees and refuses to get rid of her stilettos.

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