You're shivering at your kid's bus stop bedecked in a sleeping-bag parka, a knit hat, a pair of choppers and the boots with the fur. Your child is sporting a hoodie and joggers. And he swears he's not cold.
In fact, the 3-in-1 ski jacket with thermal reflective lining, the one your kid agreed to wear when you lovingly purchased it before the first snowflake touched the ground, has been idling on its coat hook for months. The offending garment is now deemed itchy, hot and annoying, not to mention likely abandoned for the season.
Why do kids detest their winter coats? Especially in Minnesota, where the elements have primed us over centuries to bundle up for survival, why do so many parents lose this battle?
It happens even to Dr. Chase Shutak of Children's Minnesota, who is also dad of headstrong, coatless Solveigh.
"There's nothing like having a 3-year-old to make you question your abilities as a pediatrician," said Shutak, who routinely finds himself outside in January holding Solveigh's jacket. The battle, he says, is universal. "No parent should feel alone in their pain."
Here's why kids resist winter clothing, according to science.
They feel constriction over comfort
For infants and toddlers, aversion to bulky coats is often a sensory thing. "We as parents and caregivers view swaddling and bundling up as a way of caring and loving our children," Shutak says. "But the child feels constriction. They don't have the associated thoughts of, 'Oh, this is someone showing their care for me.' They just feel like, 'Something's on my body. What's going on?' "
Young children would prefer to be naked all the time if they could, he adds. They're often irritated by things we may not even notice — seams, tags or zippers rubbing up against their skin.
"The job of children is to play," says Dr. Krish Subrahmanian, a pediatrician at Hennepin Healthcare. "If something like a coat constricts their ability to do their job, they don't like it."
Older kids may have sensory sensitivities as well. Pause, ask and listen, Subrahmanian advises. If a child's grievance is about a tag, cut it off. If it's a button, tape a cotton ball to it, or make sure the child is wearing a shirt underneath that prevents the button from touching the skin. May layers be your friend.
Autonomy of a three-nager
In toddlers, something else might be at play: a burgeoning sense of self-control.
"When we say, 'You need to put on your coat,' they sense it's something they can push back on," says Dr. Andrea Singh, a pediatrician at Park Nicollet. "They're developmentally at a stage of figuring out cause and effect, push and pull. It's the same reason why they pick out the same outfit four days in a row. That's gross, and that's what they want."
Caregivers need to be one step ahead, she says. For those who have the means to acquire two sets of outerwear, give the child a choice: Do you want to wear the red snow pants or the blue ones? Allow them the option to zip up jackets once they're outside. Be practical about how far you want to push. The purpose of bundling up is to prevent frostbite and hypothermia — which are unlikely if you're just trying to get the kid from the house to the car.
"I don't want to downplay the dangers of hypothermia; it's quite bad," Shutak says. "But our risk perception of hypothermia, especially for parents, is greater than reality."
But won't they catch a cold?
"All of our parents lied to us," Shutak says. "Going outside without a jacket will not necessarily make you sick."
Colds and other viruses are typically associated with wintertime because that's when we're trapped indoors, where germs are easily spread. "If you are outside in a large, open-air space, that's probably one of the safer places you can be in terms of catching RSV, cold and influenza," Subrahmanian says.
Do kids just run hotter?
Not really. Some studies show kids' average body temperatures can run up to a degree warmer than adults', but that's not enough to protect them from exposure to the cold. Children may, however, build up more body warmth from all of their running, clambering and building of snow forts, while you, the parent, watch from a park bench. It can be entirely true when they insist that they're not cold.
What about older kids?
As a child ages, coat rejection might stem from sociocultural perceptions, Shutak says. Forgoing a jacket can project an image of being hardy or tough, and older children — from upper-elementary-school age to teens — may conclude that feeling warm is not worth the loss of social cachet. Hence, the Minnesota winter teen uniform: a hoodie paired with shorts.
"The older a kid gets, the harder this discussion becomes. Your options become fewer," Shutak says. "You can forbid them from going outside, but is the benefit of having them stay warmer worth inhibiting the activity? For a lot of times, it isn't."
Singh, a mom to 15- and 16-year-old boys, says young people often don't understand the consequences of going without a coat. "That's part of being a teenager," she says. "They're still learning to anticipate things in the future."
Does she advise letting kids learn the hard way?
"As long as it's not dangerous, yeah," Singh says. She still explains to her teens why they should at least have their coats in the car even if they're not wearing them. She insists they gear up for the elements when temps plummet to below zero. But for warmer temperatures, she lets them use their judgment.
Picking which battles
As a parent in Minnesota, the Winter Coat Battles worth fighting are ones in which safety is at risk. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against playing outside in temperatures or windchills below minus-15 degrees because exposed skin begins to freeze within minutes. If the mercury is higher but it's still cold outside, make sure they're dressed in dry layers and that their mittens aren't soaking wet. Check on them regularly — are their extremities numb or bright red?
Shutak requires his daughter to bundle up if, say, the family is about to watch pond hockey for hours on end.
But to get from their house to their car to Solveigh's day care? He doesn't force it.
"It's not worth a slice of my energy pie," he says.