Following the lead of schools for older kids, some preschools are requiring toddlers to wear uniforms. This is a really dumb idea.
According to the Wall Street Journal, uniforms for preschoolers are on the rise — several uniform manufacturers report selling increasing numbers of the little-kid outfits. And parents and teachers apparently see merit in uniform policies even for the smallest kids. One grandma of a preschooler says that with uniforms, her granddaughter has "more of an attitude that, 'This isn't playtime, this is school now.'" Then there's this anecdote:
Janice Palmer, early-care administrator of Little People Child Development Center in Bear, Del., says she began considering requiring uniforms last year after two 4-year-olds began competing for her to admire their dresses. As one child begged her to "look at my new pretty dress and my sparkly shoes," Ms. Palmer says, a classmate approached her and said, " 'Miss Janice, I have on a new dress today, too, and you didn't tell me I was beautiful.' All of a sudden they were comparing themselves with each other," Ms. Palmer says. "I don't want to hurt these children. I don't want them to think I acknowledge one child over another."
So are uniforms the cure for preschooler flightiness and competition? Julie Ryan Evans of The Stir is skeptical:
Uniforms are serious; they send a message to kids that it's time to get down to business, which is fine when it comes to grade school. But life gets too serious too quickly anyway, and I don't want my preschooler getting down to business. I want her to learn, yes, but I want her to learn through play and expression and creativity — like many studies say is the best.
I have a different problem with uniforms — I don't think they solve anything. I wore them for one year, in eighth grade, and clothing-wise it was unquestionably the most miserable year of my life (it was pretty miserable in general, actually — it was eighth grade). Sometimes parents and even kids talk about how much easier uniforms make their lives, but my experience was the opposite — my mom had to buy me all new clothes at a time when my physical confidence was at its nadir and my barely pubescent body was difficult to fit. And instead of erasing the competition and comparison that notoriously plagues thirteen-year-olds, uniforms actually intensified it. Girls vied to wear the cutest shirt under their uniform shirt, or the coolest shoes, and then there was the constant and exhausting effort to keep your shirt untucked and unbuttoned, which was considered the best look, while teachers and administrators tried to get you to tuck and button it. All this left me with the feeling that kids are going to size each other up and cut each other down no matter what they're wearing, and while you can try to teach them to be kinder and more sensitive about their differences, you can't just take those differences away with a change of clothes.
Of course, toddlers aren't teenagers, and they hopefully aren't dealing with the kind of body insecurity I felt at thirteen. But as Palmer's story indicates, they are starting to deal with comparison, and preschool is as good a place as any to help them learn to do so in healthy ways. Instead of making every kid wear the same thing, why not teach them it's not okay to make fun of somebody else's clothes? Education expert Virginia Casper, who questions the wisdom of preschool uniforms, tells the Journal that choosing clothing is "part of life, and we like classrooms for young children to parallel life as much as possible." Learning to treat people well is part of life too, and teaching kids not to be jerks about each other's clothing can help them become compassionate adults. But putting them all in the same outfit doesn't teach them much of anything.
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