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Why Kids Hate to Wear Coats

For every parent who's warned that going out in chilly weather without a coat will make you sick, there's a kid who refuses to bundle up. But should parents worry that their coatless children are inviting in disease?

Sixteen-year-old Karam Gafur refuses to wear a coat. "It's not cool," and, he adds, "they're uncomfortable."

Karam and his friend Kendrick McCloud, also 16 and a Silver Spring, Md., resident, are dressed in layers on this 35-degree Fahrenheit day. They're wearing loose, cotton button-downs over sweatshirts.

Kendrick defends his choice of clothing as reasonable. Girls in their class, he says, walk around in flip-flops and tops that expose their belly-buttons.

Fashion trends may come and go, but Karam says his mother's expectations about bundling up hold steady.

She tells him, "'You're going to get sick, and we're going to have to pay medical bills.' I just say whatever and put it on, and then take it off later when she's not around."

Karam says he hasn't been sick so far this year. He doesn't buy the old wives' tale that being cold can give you a cold.

Pediatrician Lynn Wegner says, in this instance, the science seems to be on his side.

"A winter virus is not caused by going out in the cold air," says Wegner. "It's viral transmission." In other words, colds are caught by coming into physical contact with someone who already has a cold virus.

Acknowledging this doesn't stop most parents from acting on instinct.

Bundling kids up satisfies a deep-seated parental impulse to protect.

And culturally, it's considered the right thing to do.

"Babies are swaddled all the time," says mother Courtney Murphy. It's considered bedrock parenting.

"I don't want her to be cold," says Murphy about her daughter. "I don't want her to be sick, so I bundle her up in a coat."

But the coat revolt starts early. Toddlers throw tantrums over bundling up, and the situation doesn't improve by kindergarten.

Six-year-old Ellen Paulsen says coats are too tight and make her hot.

Ellen's mom, Anne Mosher, says her 2-year-old daughter is even more challenging.

"She's an escape artist," says Mosher. "If you manage to get the coat on her, it will be off before you're out of the car."

Pediatricians say kids who pull this stunt aren't just trying to be difficult. What's at issue is a developing control over sensory processing.

Kids would rather be the way they came into the world: naked. And as they adapt to the world of clothing, extra layers -- particularly coats -- add to their heightened perception of constriction.

"It feels like they're being really tightly bound, and it feels bad," says pediatrician Lynn Wegner.

There's another legitimate reason that kids ditch their coats. Ellen Paulsen says parents don't seem to get it: Kids don't notice they're cold, she says, because they're running around like crazy.

Kids are comfortable because they're active. Just as an adult who takes a jog in cold weather doesn't need as many layers as someone who's just standing around.

So when it comes to forcing a coat on kids, "they really don't need it probably as much as we all fear they do," says scientist and mom Lise Eliot.

Of course, this advice does not apply in extreme temperatures. Sometimes parents must step in and take charge.

"But, growing up also demands increasing independence," says Eliot, who has written widely on children's development.

Eliot advises parents to watch what happens when kids make their own decisions.

"Kids learn through experience," she says. "Logic is a great teacher -- and if they choose not to put that coat on, or those snowpants, and they go out and get really wet and really chilly, chances are next time they might think twice about it."

Backing off doesn't come naturally. But Anne Mosher says in this case it's the only way.

"If your fingers are starting to turn blue, then we'll talk," she says.

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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.