If you visit any playground in colder areas of the country in February, you may notice an alarming trend: Children in T-shirts or shorts running around like it’s mid-April in Miami, when in fact, it is below 32°F in Massachusetts or New York or Minnesota.
Ask these same children why they are flat-out refusing to put on their coats, even in the face of off-the-record candy bribes, the dangled possibility of extra screen time or the threat of punishment (see: the revocation of aforementioned screen time) and the answer you get will be equally befuddling: “It’s so hot out!” or “I’m hot!” they will say. They may also attempt to lay blame on the coat itself for being “bunchy,” “suffocating,” “so itchy” or otherwise offensive.
Exasperated parents will shrug and mumble to each other, “They just must not feel it…” or resolve to “pick my battles today,” knowing full well both of these things are likely impossible. When common sense supplies no easy answers, we must look to science.
Here, sharper minds than ours offer explanations for this mystifying midwinter phenomenon.
It’s a way to assert independence. In an interview with The Atlantic, Matthew Saia, M.D., a pediatrician and assistant professor at the University of Vermont, poured cold water on the notion that some kids just run hot. “In children, the average body temperature ranges from 98°F to 99°F. So, while there are some children who may have a higher average body temperature during the day than others, this one degree does not make a difference in protecting children from the effects of significant cold exposure.” Noted. In the same article, therapist and school counselor Phyllis Fagell observed that preteens—and particularly boys—have a strong desire to be perceived as tough and “not seem like a baby.” And perhaps nothing seems more babyish than being bundled up in soft, fluffy winter gear your mommy picked out for you. In other words, good old-fashioned healthy rebellion and a push toward bodily autonomy could be at the root of coat revolt.
It’s a sensory thing. Some kids truly are more sensitive to the feeling of heavy fabric on their skin, to clothing seams, tags or buttons, or to tight, constricting layers. These concerns are legitimate. “Winter coats can be like iron maidens for kids with sensory issues,” writes columnist Petula Dvorak in The Washington Post. “We’ve all felt overbundled, and that can feel horrific to a child already struggling with the outside world’s control of their little bodies.” You might be able to find a compromise by giving your child the choice between several warm-enough winter coats and inviting him to select the least uncomfortable option. Experts at Understood.org, a resource for kids with learning differences, suggest looking for softer, looser fabrics like fleece, and cutting the tags out of shirts. Buying snow or rain boots a half size too big has the double advantage of giving little feet room to breathe and potentially lasting an extra season as kids grow into them.
They really don’t feel cold: As long as it’s not truly freezing out, “kids don't notice they're cold because they're running around like crazy,” Ellen Paulsen told NPR’s Allison Aubrey. “Kids are comfortable,” Aubrey contends, “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.” You mean, like a parent on a playground?