Plaids and Polka Dots? : Fashion: So what if kids pair patterns that don't match? Their parents may be appalled at the choices, but experts say putting together an outfit helps build self-confidence.

Christian, mother of a 3-year-old girl, is an assistant business news editor for The Times.

So your 4-year-old changes clothes four times in one hour? She hates the new pants you just spent $45 on but loves the baggy hand-me-down from her older cousin? She wants to wear the same dress 17 days in a row?

Relax--experts say it's perfectly normal.

"These early choices about dressing are the start of the feelings of authenticity," says Megan Snyder-Grossman, a South Pasadena family therapist.

"One of the problems I see most often is kids who have grown up trying to please someone. They can't trust themselves.

"It's great if kids can say, 'Mom and Dad accept my choices, I can trust my choices too,' " she adds.

But, understanding why a 4-year-old insists on wearing the same zany outfit for days on end isn't always enough to save her parents' sanity when they're trying to get the children off to school.

Josephine Gatan Shiplacoff remembers many a day when just getting out the door was a morning's work. Her strong-willed 5-year-old daughter, Julia, takes a long time to get dressed, Shiplacoff allows. Their solution? Shiplacoff, a nurse at Cedars-Sinai, says, "I try to help Julia choose her outfit the night before, so it will speed the process up a bit."

And what outfits.

"She's very imaginative--she'll put a T-shirt of her brother's over a skirt and tie something around her waist. She likes lots of necklaces and stickers for earrings, and she loves to wear dresses," Shiplacoff says.

Still, Shiplacoff encourages her daughter to dress as she wishes. "It doesn't matter what she ends up looking like. The only time it's a problem is when she dresses wrong for the weather. Yesterday (when it was almost 100 degrees) she wanted to wear a sweater."

Other parents aren't as comfortable with their children's fanciful fashion tastes. Some admit to feeling embarrassed by little ones who insist on wearing eye-popping outfits .

It might help them to know that many teachers consider it a badge of courage when a preschooler shows up wearing, say, a slip on top of a dress.

"I can always tell which parents value autonomy by the way their children dress," says Alise Shafer, a teacher at All Saints' Preschool in Beverly Hills.

But even some parents who encourage creative freedom aren't entirely comfortable with it. "I have parents who apologize to me when the children dress themselves," Shafer says.

She offers another bit of helpful insight: Most children dress in "sections," not thinking about the whole. "For instance, they like a purple lace headband so they wear it with a red dress and pink tights. They see each part separately and don't care how the whole may look," Shafer says.

She maintains it is important that children learn by doing, despite mistakes. "My son often puts his clothes on backward and when I tell him, he says, 'I did it on purpose,' which he didn't. But he's saving face and that's important."

A veteran problem-solver when it comes to children's school apparel, Shafer tells parents how important it is to designate which things in the closet are for school. She has found it very helpful to provide a selection of appropriate clothes from which a child is free to choose.

"Kids have to have clothes suitable for school within their reach. Party clothes should be elsewhere and not be a choice for school," she says.

Shafer has worked out other guidelines for parents as well: Kids should wear sturdy, comfortable clothes that allow complete freedom of movement. If parents don't want to risk getting finger-paint on their child's outfit, they shouldn't include that outfit on the school clothes rack.

Shoes are a consideration, too. Little girls' slick-soled party shoes don't work on the playground, Shafer points out. Not only do they make it hard to run, but the slippery bottoms can be dangerous.

Despite her guidelines, however, children in her classes still show up dressed to the nines.

Once, she recalls, "I asked everyone to bring a milk container filled with mud. We filled a little swimming pool, which they thought was great, but only my daughter (who is in the class) would go in. The others all had on their party clothes."

Why are the toddler daughters of modern, post-feminism moms drawn to party dresses for school, despite the warnings?

Snyder-Grossman can only marvel at the trend. "I brought home some khaki pants for (3-year-old) Madeleine the other day and she said, 'Those are boy pants.' I have no idea where she gets that."

In part, it could be that little girls are influenced by working mothers who start each day dressed up for the office.

To counterbalance this image, Shafer suggests, "I think parents need to dress in play clothes, too, so that kids see it's OK to dress like that."

Fashion freedom seems to be less of an issue with boys. "Traditionally, there haven't been as many choices for boys' clothes," Snyder-Grossman says. "And boys aren't expected to look as 'cute.' "

That is not to say they don't like to experiment with their wardrobe.

"Clothes are like an art piece. Artistic kids really get into them," Shafer says. "One little boy I know puts himself together with a style all his own--he always has on capes, hats, badges. He's defining himself through his clothes."

Which is all well and good, but not for school, Shafer maintains. She discourages store-bought costumes as school wear. "They're too disruptive, too narrowing in terms of play, because the kids end up acting out the role, like they've seen it on TV."

Despite the frustrations for adults, Shafer and Snyder-Grossman believe that freedom of fashion expression serves a valuable purpose.

"There are so few areas where children can make choices," Shafer says. "This is such a benign place to allow them to do it."

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