Childrearing Patience Advice

Written by Marla Paul

Theorizing about what you'll tolerate as your child exerts his or her will is one thing. But, as this writer explains, reality is a whole different ballgame.

The teenager in the mall sported a fuchsia-colored Mohawk moussed into a row of interesting chainsaw-like spikes. My husband and I stared and thought about the boy's parents.

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"Would you let our child out of the house like that?" I asked. He thought for a minute. "Yes, I would," he said. I agreed.

At that moment we vowed to be parents who would allow our children fashion freedom of expression. We would be tolerant. We would be accepting. We would be nonjudgmental.

We had no children at the time.

We didn't know exactly how our yet unborn child (due in several months) would choose to express herself when she reached the age of rebellion, say 14 or 15. It didn't matter. We wouldn't blink. "Is that a live gerbil in your navel? How cute. Call if you'll be late."

We were further encouraged by advice in child development books which almost guaranteed our infant would not grow up to be a serial murderer if we let her pick out her own clothes.

Our daughter declared her independence a bit sooner than we expected: Age 2. Good for you, I thought. Express yourself.

I stood by in silent support when she pulled on one navy blue knee sock and one red sock to go out to dinner with her aunt.

"I'm not taking her out like that," said my sister, a stylish young woman.

"Elizabeth chooses her own clothes," I explained. I thought she was doing rather well.

Then last winter Elizabeth received The Princess Dress. It seemed innocent enough. A charming white fleece dress printed with whimsical princesses and castles. At first I was amused by her affection for it. She wanted to wear it every day.

I was getting a little sick of it by the time spring arrived and was relieved to pack it away. I hoped she would outgrow it or just forget about it by fall.

She did not forget. All summer she questioned me closely as to the next wearing opportunity for The Princess Dress. "You have to wait till it gets cold out again," I said. When the temperature dropped below 85 degrees, she begged for it. When fall arrived, I reluctantly took the dress down. She hugged it like a long, lost friend. To my horror, it still fit.

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It still does. She has worn The Princess Dress every single day for the past six months, except for two hours on Fridays when it is in the wash.

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The dress, which now could be more accurately called a tunic, is covered with indelible spaghetti sauce and chili spills beyond the reach of any stain sticks. Hoping to appeal to her sense of tidiness, I pointed out the orange stains."Those aren't stains, those are polka dots," she said.

Elizabeth began receiving gifts of clothes from relatives, who apparently thought she wore the same outfit because she didn't have anything else. In fact, she has a drawer full of clothes that are more attractive and fashionable than any of mine.

"Maybe The Princess Dress could just disappear," I suggested to my husband. I wondered aloud if a child could be traumatized by the sudden disappearance of a favorite clothing item. Perhaps a small laundry room accident could cause its demise. "I'm sorry, honey. Your dress melted in the dryer." But I knew I couldn't bear to see the look on her face.

I know childhood clothing fetishes are not uncommon. My friend Candy's son, Jesse, insists that the laces on his shoes be tied to exactly the same degree of tightness and the identical length or he won't leave the house.

Once she lost patience and sent him off with uneven laces. When he came home, he announced, "Mommy, you didn't fix my laces right this morning. I felt bad about myself all day."

This clearly was serious stuff. Fragile young egos were at stake. If I take away The Princess Dress, my daughter might not feel good about herself through kindergarten.

Still, she isn't very tolerant of other people's sartorial lapses and doesn't worry about their egos. When I dressed in the same clothing I'd worn the day before (conveniently retrieved from a pile next to my bed where I had dropped it the previous night), she looked at me disdainfully and said, "Mom, you wore that yesterday!"

The Princess Dress, Day 300? 400? I've lost count. I am feeling intolerant, unaccepting and very judgmental. I hate that dress. And I can feel the words rising in my throat: "Take that thing off. I don't ever want to see it again!"

But I remain silent and pick up a calendar to give me strength. Only 120 days till summer.

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