Shopping for Independence

When Dr. Susan Bartell’s daughter went shopping for a graduation dress with a school friend and purchased a dress for the occasion, it wouldn’t have been one of Dr. Bartell’s first choices for a graduation dress. Dr. Bartell takes this life experience to teach her daughter an important lesson on becoming more independent.

This past May, my daughter Mollie went shopping with a friend. (I was not the adult in charge of the girls.) Mollie found a dress she loved and decided that it would be the perfect outfit to wear for her eighth grade graduation ceremony. That night, she tried on the dress for me. I have to admit that I didn’t love the dress (although it was absolutely appropriate for graduation). I debated telling her my feelings, but ultimately decided that in this situation, sharing my opinion (for which she hadn’t asked) was far less important than supporting her ability to make independent choices and believe in herself. But, the story doesn’t end there. Woman Shopping for Dress

The day before graduation, Mollie approached me.

“Do you like my graduation dress?”

“Well,” I responded, choosing my words carefully, “I think it looks beautiful on you, but that style wouldn’t have been my first choice for graduation.”

“Why didn’t you tell me before?” she asked, slightly confused.

“I thought it was more important for you to make your own decision than for me to make you feel that you’d made a mistake when you shopped for it yourself. I was
proud of how independent you were being.”

“Oh, okay.” And then in a quiet voice she continued, “I don’t really like it anymore for graduation. Don’t be mad at me, but can we go shopping for another dress?”

“Absolutely!” I gave Mollie a big hug and added, “I’m not at all upset with you. In fact, I’m very happy that you came to me when you realized you weren’t satisfied with the dress.”

Happily, just 24 hours before graduation, Mollie and I found a beautiful yellow dress that she absolutely loved. During this past summer, I have thought a lot about the ‘yellow dress’ experience, as Mollie and I have come to call it. I know with all my heart that there was enormous value in that crazy, last-minute shopping expedition—during which she tried on more than 20 dresses and I searched through racks until my feet were aching. Mollie knows for sure now that even if she makes a mistake (and she thought her first dress choice was a big one), I will be there to support her, help her, and guide her without an “I told you so” or a “you should’ve asked me first” comment.  

As the new school year begins, it is the perfect time to consider the possibility of a ‘yellow dress’ moment with your child. Each school year offers greater independence and ever more complex academic, social, and emotional problems in need of solving. It is, of course, very important to allow your child space to experience developmentally appropriate autonomy in order to try to solve his or her own problems, test the waters, and hopefully make the right choices. But, it is even more important for your child to know that if something doesn’t go quite as anticipated you will be there to help fix things—without being impatient, angry, or frustrated that you weren’t asked first. So, this school year, keep your eye open for ‘yellow dress’ moments, and embrace them because they are the seeds of inner strength and high self-esteem for your maturing child.  

Dr. Susan Bartell is a Long Island-based, nationally recognized child psychologist, speaker, and award-winning author. Her latest book is “The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask.” You can learn more about Dr. Bartell at

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