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Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Middle-childhood-aged children's increasing social awareness and desire for relationships with peers motivates them to become increasingly concerned about their appearance; how good and desirable they look to others. Children's concern over their appearance is not entirely new to the middle childhood period - children use their appearance as a vehicle for self-expression at younger ages as well - but in middle childhood, this concern takes on a new urgency as children begin to use their appearance - how they dress and present themselves - as a means of social signaling.

teen upset with parentsThe foundation of an attractive appearance is hygiene. Simply put, it is not possible to present an attractive appearance towards others when you have seriously neglected your hygiene and are, as a result, literally unwashed and poorly groomed. Please refer to our earlier section on children's hygiene for further information on this important subject if this is of concern.


Middle childhood is characterized by rapid physical growth and great physical energy. Children at this age are prone to quickly outgrow items of clothing in their wardrobes. As well, they are physically hard on their clothing. An item that fits today may not last to see a second season before becoming ripped or stained beyond recovery. At the same time, children are also maturing socially, and will now likely begin to express a desire for clothing that conveys social status. Unfortunately, such clothing is generally expensive, and particularly so as it is unlikely to last.

Keeping this context in mind, parents should take care to balance children's expressed desire for particular high status clothing items against family resources. Most families will not be in a position to accommodate the full range of children's wardrobe desires. There is no shame in this being the case. In our view, clothing need not be expensive or trendy in nature if that does not fit with what parents can afford. However, there should be enough clothing available so that children always have something clean and attractive to wear. If possible, children should be able to select from a number of clothing options each day, so as to accommodate their growing need for individual and independent self-expression. Children's clothing choices should also be comfortable and appropriate to the season and the weather they are likely to encounter.

Guiding Children's Independent Clothing Selection

By middle childhood children will typically be oriented enough to understand how to select and assemble an outfit, or even how to select weather-appropriate clothing on their own. For instance, they will know to wear a raincoat when it is going to rain (although they may not always choose to act on this knowledge). Despite these impressive abilities, children will still not generally have mastered all the social knowledge required to match clothing to specific situations, or even to simply match clothing so that it all looks good together. Thus, parents will still play an important role helping children to select clothing appropriate to religious services, family occasions, visiting friends, etc., and, separately, helping children to coordinate outfits of clothing items that work well as an ensemble. Parents may want to step in and provide fashion advice when children's clothing choices are outlandish. Finally, parents may find it useful to enforce children's wearing of weather-appropriate clothing in instances where they make short-sighted choices (for instance, by bringing a jacket in the car on a cold day when a child refuses to wear one).

During this period of children's development parents retain a clear role as fashion police and wardrobe consultants. However, whenever possible, parents should also take care to let children express their own style through the use of color, design, and accessories so as not to stomp on children's developing sense of competency, self-expression and self-esteem.

Limiting Children's Clothing Choices to Prevent Arguments

A good way for parents to find a balance between no wardrobe supervision and too much supervision involves them providing children with a limited choice of outfits to wear. Limiting children's choices helps parents to teach children how to make increasingly refined selections of clothing matched to specific situations, and also simply reduces clothing related arguments.

To illustrate, suppose that 10-year-old Janey decides to wear a super-short mini skirt with flip flops and a t-shirt to school in April, in Michigan. Janey may want to wear this outfit due to its casualness and comfortable nature, but it is simply not adequate to keep Janey warm and protected on a Spring day in Michigan. Additionally, this outfit is not appropriate due to a school dress code. Janey is likely aware of the dress code but does not fully appreciate the consequences that might come from violating it. In this situation, Mom must explain to Janey that her choice of outfit is inappropriately warm and also inappropriately informal. Rather than forbidding Janey to wear these clothing selections and setting up an angry confrontation, Mom can help Janey to add additional items of clothing to her outfit so as to make the total ensemble warmer and more modest while still enabling her to express her individuality. For instance, Janey may choose to wear the t-shirt with a pair of pants and a jean jacket. Alternatively, she may layer the mini skirt over a pair of fashionable leggings in combination with her favorite pair of sneakers. Either of these choices could result in a win-win situation for both Janey and Mom. Janey will have been educated in how to select an outfit appropriate to nuanced situational demands, and she will still get to express herself by wearing clothing of her choosing.

Clothing and Puberty

With the onset of puberty, girls will begin to develop breasts. As a result their clothing needs change in that they now will require an entirely new type of clothing. An early development bra or undershirt may now be in order so as to properly cover and support girls' changing bodies. Please see our center on Puberty for additional information on this important topic.