Joco Diversions

Emily Parnell: The very young have it right; just be true to your colorful self

“Mom, get up. We have to go to school. I get candy today.”

She sat on the edge of my bed, fully dressed in an outfit more colorful than a candy store. A horizontally striped dress in salmon, teal and white, a horizontally striped jacket in white, fuchsia and gray, leggings printed in a design of frosted donuts covered in sprinkles of every color, and cowboy boots sporting a psychedelic pattern of reds, pinks, purples half a dozen other hues.

I do not dress my child. It’s been quite some time since I was able to choose an outfit she didn’t protest.

It started a while back with a rather severe bout of anxiety. She was, as far as I could tell, uncomfortable in her own skin. At that time, she became very particular about what she would wear. My husband and I agreed not to start a battle over her clothing, and let her work things out in her own, colorful way.

The anxiety passed, but from that time emerged a style — all my daughter’s own. No combination is off-limits. Each ensemble is carefully chosen, but the rationale and methodology remain a mystery.

Somehow, it works. You might think that red and white polka-dot pants topped by a teal and black plaid shirt sounds crazy. But when you pull it together with a pink and orange striped ankle sock, a solid black knee sock and hot pink shoes, all topped off with a lime green skirt, well, then you’ve got yourself an outfit.

If said outfit is worn by a spunky little girl who can’t walk without springing straight up into the air with every single step and wakes up an hour early on days she’ll receive candy at a school party, now you have yourself an unbeatable style.

When we walk out in public, she draws the eye. Often I glimpse older gentlemen as their eyebrows shoot up in surprise, then a smile crosses their face at the sight of her get-ups.

But it’s not always easy to stand out.

I remember very clearly a day I tried a similar style. I was in third grade, like my daughter is now. I wore an olive green and white horizontal striped shirt and red shorts that had flowers sprinkled over them.

I remember the fashion police officer (a.k.a. mean girl) who stood in front of me, her hands on her hips.

“Your clothes don’t match,” she spat. “You can’t wear two different patterns. And the colors aren’t right.”

I stewed the rest of the day, scrutinizing the green in the flower print, rationalizing that it sort of matched the green in the shirt. I felt ugly and ashamed. I wish I had my own daughter’s pluck. Her brazen defiance of the fashion laws and visual common-sense define a quiet yet committed sense of individualism.

The fashion police occasionally go after my daughter. She was told that a hat she loves — one I knit — was ugly. It’s full of grays and drab greens, and several of her friends thought it was ugly. I asked my daughter if it hurt her feelings, or if she was upset with her friends.

“No,” she shook the criticisms off. “Anyway, I feel sorry for a girl who wears something she likes, then her friends say they don’t like it, then she doesn’t ever wear it again. That would just be sad for that girl.”

I wish third-grade me could pack up my insecurities and take a little time machine vacation to visit my own third-grade daughter. It took me years to learn the lesson she’s identified on her own: It’s OK to stand out, even if others don’t like it. In fact, the sad thing is to be untrue to yourself.

Overland Park mom and freelancer Emily Parnell writes weekly.