A few months ago, Rachel Fournier found herself doing daily battle with a princess. She wanted her 3-year-old daughter to wear durable, casual clothes, but Isabel was only interested in her closet's sparkliest dresses. "The last time I chose her outfit, she cried the entire way to day care," says the Traverse City, Michigan, mom. "As soon as I picked her up in the afternoon, she stripped in the car and refused to put her clothes back on. I ended up buckling her in that way."
If your child has suddenly become very vocal about her wardrobe, congratulations: It's a sign that she's growing up. "Preschoolers are also at a stage where they're trying to assert their independence and test limits," says Alanna Levine, M.D., a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "Getting dressed provides an opportunity to put both things into practice." That doesn't mean every morning has to be a showdown, however.
Most 3- to 4-year-olds are wannabe dictators, grasping for control wherever they can. So whenever possible, let 'em have it. "Give your child lots of little choices about things that don't matter to you," suggests Jim Fay, coauthor of Love and Logic Magic for Early Childhood: Practical Parenting From Birth to Six Years. For example, ask, "Would you rather wear your blue sweater or your red one?" Having a say will make him less likely to dig in his heels.
Allow for Taste
Do you hate wool? Can't stand too-tight tank tops? It's likely your kid will have her own likes and dislikes too. Within reason, try to be flexible about her preferences. "It's okay to avoid things that bug your child," says Parents advisor Ari Brown, M.D., author of Toddler 411. "It shows that you respect her opinion." There may be an easy fix to some of her pet peeves: You can turn socks with irritating seams inside out and cut off annoying shirt tags. (If her sensitivities seem more extreme, talk to your doctor.) And if she wants to wear dresses every day -- well, why not? If you're worried about her being cold, you can always layer warm leggings or a T-shirt underneath.
Take Time to Practice
By age 3, most children can handle the basics of getting dressed, such as pulling on underwear, elastic-waist pants, and a sweatshirt. (Trickier tasks, like threading a zipper or doing buttons, may come later.) In fact, most kids like to do these things. "It makes them feel confident and competent," says Dr. Levine. So even if it's slow going, let your kid dress herself as often as you can, especially on those weekend mornings when there's no need to rush. "The more you can give her the power to dress herself, the less of a struggle it will be," says Dr. Levine.
Make It a Race
Of course, preschoolers don't feel the same urgency to get out the door that you do in the morning. They'd rather play with Legos or watch Go, Diego, Go! than get dressed. With that in mind, turn dressing into a game. Say, "I'll close my eyes and see how long it takes you to put on your shirt and pants." Or set a timer for ten minutes and reward your kid with a sticker if he gets downstairs before the buzzer goes off. You can also give him a poker chip for each good performance and allow him to trade them in for a treat when he has five chips.
Kids this age love looking at photos of themselves. Use this to your advantage by making a step-by-step picture guide of your child's morning activities. It could show her waking up, getting dressed, brushing her teeth, and eating breakfast. Hang it in her room, where she can follow it each day. "Then the routine chart becomes the boss instead of you," says Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., coauthor of Positive Discipline for Preschoolers. If you have her choose her outfit the night before, you can head off one huge time-sucking morning meltdown maker: the harried search for a favorite shirt -- that's then found at the bottom of the hamper.
Let Him Chill
Ah, the winter-coat struggle. Your child isn't cold inside, so why the heck would he want to put on that bulky, sweaty jacket and cover his perfectly warm-enough outfit? But he will feel different when he gets outside. Unless it's truly freezing, don't sweat the situation, says Dr. Levine. Just carry his coat and let him go out as is. "If he's chilly, he's going to ask you for it," Dr. Levine says. "Then next time, you can gently remind him of how cold he was." Chances are, your child will welcome the coat and gloves long before his fingers go numb.
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Parents magazine.