Parenting for the Perplexed | Frazzled mom weary of daily battle over dressing toddler

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via [email protected]

I have a 21⁄2-year-old boy. Every day, we struggle getting off his nighttime diaper (he is almost day trained) and his PJs. I have tried setting a timer, letting him pick the alarm sound, letting him pick his clothes, using a sticker chart and explaining. Four out of five times he will not comply, and then it is a struggle with screaming, crying and kicking while I get him out of his PJs and diaper and into his day clothes. He is very verbal and will tell me, “I want to fuss/struggle.”

I will sometimes get angry and need to leave the room because it’s so hard. I really don’t want to let him wear a dirty diaper and PJs to his school or day care — and I want us to have a pleasant morning, because I won’t see him for the rest of the day. On the weekends, it’s a little less of a struggle because the time element is not as pressing. I don’t want this to be a daily issue, and I worry about damaging his self-esteem and independence somehow. Any advice you can share would be appreciated!—  Sad and Frazzled Mom (Berkeley Parents Network,

Dear Sad and Frazzled Mom:
First of all, all parents have had days when they felt sad, frazzled or both. It’s very hard to sustain your parenting confidence when you are doing all the right things and they don’t work! Sometimes, you need to hit the reset button to get onto a more successful track, even if what you’ve been doing makes perfect sense. Remember that a general, if mistaken, human tendency when something we do doesn’t work is to keep trying it the same way.

So, let’s take a different approach to your “Battles by the Bay.” Your son sounds very developed verbally and socially and very sure of his own mind. I suggest you go with his strengths instead of butting heads against them. How? Let him arrive at the conclusion that he doesn’t want to go to day care in his PJs and dirty diaper on his own. Follow these steps:

1. Coordinate with his day care provider that for a few days he will arrive in PJs and dirty diaper.

2. Continue your morning routine, giving him 5 minutes to change (with as little help from you as possible). Better than a timer (time ticking down is still rather abstract at his age) is a CD: Tell him he can change during two specific songs. Once they end, it’s time to go to day care. He goes “as is.”

3. At day care, tell the teacher, loudly enough so he can hear it, “I am sorry Sam came in his PJs and diaper today. He didn’t change in time at home.”

4. Plan with the teacher in advance so she is prepared to say something mildly (mildly!) disapproving, e.g. “Well, that’s too bad. I’ll help you change when you’re ready to do it quickly.” (This kind of mild disapproval would not be not harmful for a 21⁄2-year-old, for whom wearing diapers is perfectly normal, but would and should be avoided for older kids). Use the change of clothes you have at day care for messes or accidents.

With no drama at home (thus, no gain in asserting himself), and the implied pressure of expectations at school, your son should come around within a few days.

In addition, your son may be reacting to pressure he feels to stay dry all day. Dial it down, including the amount of praise and encouragement you give. Finally, increase the appeal of the outfits for each school day. Let him choose shirts with trains, animals, etc., and set them out only for weekday mornings.

On another note: Many kids (usually younger) go through a phase the other way around: They strip naked whenever they can. For these children, you should say as little as possible at home. With no drama, it will pass once your child gets cold (keep the thermostat low) or scrapes his bottom. For outings, dress him in overalls put on backwards (front to back), fastening the shoulder straps snuggly.

Mark Twain said: “Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Try telling that to a toddler!

Rachel Biale
Rachel Biale

Rachel Biale was born and raised on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in Israel and worked for many years as a Jewish community professional in the Bay Area.