Similar to many essential life skills, teaching your child to dress themselves seems simple until you actually try to do it. It requires fine and gross motor skills, patience, interest, and a certain level of independence. Some kids undress and dress themselves as young toddlers, while others would be happy to let mom or dad do it for the foreseeable future. Luckily, we’ve got some tips for kids who may be struggling or parents who are ready to get the ball rolling.
At what age should my child learn to dress themselves?
As with anything in parenting, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Some toddlers will become interested in dressing themselves on their own, while others will need to be prompted. It’s also a process that takes years, starting with your 18-month-old taking off shoes and shirts and ending with your kindergartner zipping jackets and tying shoes.
10 tips for teaching your child how to get dressed
1. Teach them how to take their clothes off first
I don’t mean to brag, but I never had to teach my toddlers to take their clothes off. In fact, I spent a lot of time convincing them to keep clothes on. If your child is not the neighborhood streaker, work with them to begin undressing themselves in the morning and at night. Start with asking them to take off their own shoes by the door (try slip-ons), and work up to socks, shirts, and pants.
2. Discuss clothes and getting dressed
Make conversation when picking out their clothes by naming each item of clothing and asking some questions. What time of day do we get dressed? What clothes are weather-appropriate today? Should we wear play clothes or nice clothes? Teach them the difference between front and back, bottom and top. This gets them interested and involved in the process.
3. Start with easy, loose clothes
When something is too frustrating at the beginning, it can discourage kids from trying. Instead, have clothes available that are easy to get on and off. Looser elastic-waisted pants like sweats or pajamas are a good place to start, followed by short-sleeve shirts that aren’t too tight. Avoid tight clothing and tricky buttons or zippers at first.
4. Go step by step
Using simple, descriptive language, explain how to take each item of clothing on and off. Go slowly, at a time when you’re not rushing out the door. It can also help to get dressed at the same time when possible, showing them how you do it.
5. Sit down when dressing
Most kids will do this on their own but have them sit down on the floor or a stool when putting on socks or pants. Eliminating balancing and falling makes things go more smoothly. Have them face their pants the right way, push their feet through the leg holes, begin to pull up, and then stand to pull the pants over their bottom.
6. Pick out their clothes OR let them pick
This one is dependent on the individual child. While some kids benefit from having a simple outfit laid out for them, others get excited about (or insist upon) picking out their own outfits. Try both to see what yields better results.
Personally, I had to let go of cutesy outfits that actually matched because my kids all loved picking out their own clothes. In certain phases, I even had to entice them with tractor T-shirts and sequined skirts. Do what you gotta do, and let go of that Instagram perfection.
7. Teach it backward
One trick (especially if your child is struggling with too many steps) is to teach the last step first. For instance, face a pair of pants the right way, help your child put both feet into the leg holes, and then have them pull the pants up by themselves. Next, have them learn how to push their arm through the armholes on their own.
8. Try a mirror
My toddlers always loved looking at themselves in the mirror, because no one feels themselves more than a toddler. Suggest that they get dressed in front of a full-length mirror, which helps them see what they’re doing at each step.
9. Let them struggle
As a parent, it can be hard not to swoop in as soon as the frustration and tears start. However, that’s usually the time when they start to figure it out on their own. It may be hard to watch, but give them some credit- they got this! Obviously, offer some help when necessary, but that may not be as often as you think.
10. Follow their lead, be patient, and have fun!
Read books about getting dressed, think Daniel Tiger and make up songs, get some dressing flashcards, and make it silly. If they’re simply not getting the hang of it, slow it down, or back off and try again in a month or two. The only timeline kids care about is their own!
Keep in mind that while your child may be able to maneuver shirts and pants, socks and jackets might not happen for some time. Buttons, zippers, and shoe-tying will likely be last on the list.
Check out these techniques for teaching your child to dress themselves from an occupational therapist.