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Put Your Coat On!

Why some kids won't dress for the weather — and what to do about it (or not)

December 15, 2017
boy in winter coat, hat, scarf catching snowflakes

Put your coat on. Take your coat, honey; it’s cold outside. It’s freezing — where’s your coat?

Through the ages and stages of parenting, there’s been one constant in our household: My desire for my son to wear his coat in the winter, and his desire not to.

I know I’m not alone. I’ve exchanged stories of jacket battle fatigue with parents of every-aged child. The morning arguments with a darling preschooler or a stubborn fourth-grader, the consistency of the forgetting powers of a tween, the grumpiness of an older kid when they realize that, my goodness, it is cold after all.

I wanted to understand the psychology behind these daily battles — the cognitive or other barriers that might be preventing my child from seeing the eminent logic of my position on this. So I went to Tina Grotzer, who brings three relevant perspectives to the discussion. She is an expert on children’s understanding of causality — loosely, cause and effect — and on how that understanding informs their decision-making in a complex world. She is a cognitive scientist and a teacher with a background in developmental psychology. And, between her kids and step-kids, she's helped raise four children.

Looking through those old materials, I felt vindicated in my suspicion that there’s a lot going on with this whole coat-refusal thing. Could our battles be solved with a lesson in thermodynamics?

Years ago, Grotzer developed a series of lessons for second and third graders (archived here) about what might best be called “the science of coats” — lessons exploring the purpose of insulation and the concepts of heat and temperature. The lessons confronted a common misconception among young students: that coats themselves are a source of heat energy.

Looking through those old materials, I felt vindicated in my suspicion that there’s a lot going on with this whole coat-refusal thing. Could our battles be solved with a lesson in thermodynamics?

There is some value in helping kids understand how coats work, Grotzer says — if for no other reason than the science is useful. “As adults, we tend to say to our kids, ‘Put your coat on, that will make you warm.’ What we really mean is, the coat will keep you warm. But I think it’s even more powerful to say to kids, the coat will keep your warmth inside.”

Coats slow thermal equilibrium. They keep what’s inside in, and what’s outside out, as much as possible. “So — the coat is helping you,” Grotzer says. “I like to give kids that idea, because then it’s not just that it’s protecting you against the cold; it’s actually holding something that is yours — your heat energy.”

But an appeal to my child’s budding science identity won’t solve these daily battles, because various social-emotional issues around agency, autonomy, and executive function come strongly into play as well.

“We know that agency is one of the most powerful cognitive motivators for kids,” Grotzer told me, describing a large body of research that shows how children learn and grow when they can see and feel the consequences of their own actions. Children begin to understand cause and effect during their first year, and they thrive on empowerment — something parents can readily hear as toddler cries of “I do it myself” fill the home.

Inevitably, kids begin testing that power — separating from their parents, and building their decision-making capacity. Their sensory-processing motors are running on high, too, and the feel of a coat — its bulkiness and constriction — is often unwelcome, so they’ll discard it.

Inevitably, kids begin testing their own power — separating from their parents, and building their decision-making capacity. Their sensory-processing motors are running on high, too, and the feel of a coat — its bulkiness and constriction — is often unwelcome, so they’ll discard it.

“I can’t run in my coat,” my son says, immune to my helpful critique that the coat is not around his legs, so there’s no reason he can’t run. But all that running is another reason why the coat feels burdensome; kids are generally more active than adults, so they’re more comfortable in the cold. At least for older kids, and at least in moderate weather, they probably don’t need a coat as much as we think they do. And kids get wise to us quickly; they figure out that there’s a discrepancy between what we tell them and what they feel.

“Even by third or fourth grade, they’re not going to hear that parental voice so much,” Grotzer says. “And then by fifth and sixth grade, it becomes all about the peers — ‘Nobody else is wearing a coat, Mom.’ That’s the group that they care about, and those are the voices they’re hearing. So, at that point, as parents, we just kind of lose out.

“I look at my own kids — they’re never cold. And it’s not a boy-girl thing, because with my twins, there's one of each. They’re 17 now, and the words don’t even come out of my mouth anymore about wearing a coat. But I do know that when they go skiing, they’ve thought a lot about how to stay healthy and warm. They have layers and clothes that wick moisture. They know they can’t be on the top of a mountain in 10 degrees without that.

“So I know that when it really matters, they’re wearing their coats,” Grotzer says. “But it has to come from them.”

As parents, we know that letting go is always painful. But if I can frame the coat battles as a sign that my son is starting to make his own claim on the world, that he’s asserting his identity, and that he’s building his sense of confidence and self-worth (and that I’m helping him do that), then maybe I can reset this whole debate. As Grotzer reminded me, parents “always have to take the long view, even if, in the moment, it can be harder for us.”

Sounds good. Just take your coat.

About the Author

Bari Walsh
Bari Walsh is the senior editor of Usable Knowledge.
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