January 13, 2020
As the temperatures plunge this winter, a small number of teenage boys nationwide will continue to wear shorts at the bus stop, as well as throughout the school day.
The “one kid who wears shorts to school all year”: In regions that get cold and snowy in the winter, he’s a figure who is equal parts familiar and bewildering to kids and teachers alike, and his clothing choices present an annual hassle for his parents, writer Ashley Fetters said in The Atlantic last week.
To research the phenomenon, Fetters asked educators at her former middle school and high school in Minnesota—who readily confirmed to her that they can count on having two or three of him every year, arriving at school after braving the morning wind chill with bare calves.
In other words, the Boy Who Wears Shorts All Winter is a highly recognizable but largely inscrutable character, and when The Atlantic’s writer asked parents, teachers, child psychologists, and a former B.W.W.S.A.W., himself, to try to explain what exactly motivates such a totally impractical clothing choice, they all offered different answers.
A common belief among parents is that some kids just “run hot,” or get less uncomfortable in cold temperatures than other people do. One mother in the Midlands region of the U.K. said that her eight-year-old son must be “hot-blooded,” because he insists on wearing shorts to school even when it’s below freezing outside, claiming he “doesn’t feel the cold.” One of the educators I spoke with in Minnesota told me that when she asks her students why they’ve made shorts their winter uniform, the response she typically gets is just a shrug and an “I’m not cold.”
Matthew Saia, a pediatrician and assistant professor at the University of Vermont, said that he is skeptical of that notion. “In children, the average body temperature ranges from 98 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit. 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,” he wrote in an email.
And when extreme cold or wind chill comes into the equation, Dr. Saia encourages parents to adopt a tough-love, no-you’re-not-leaving-the-house-in-that stance, because at “temperatures of -15 degrees or less, exposed skin can freeze within minutes.”
One perennially popular joke about kids who wear shorts all winter is that the persistent refrain of “I’m not cold” is the entire point of the habit. The insistence has a boastful quality: “It’s attention-seeking,” an observer told The Atlantic’s writer.
Phyllis Fagell, a therapist and school counselor who wrote the book ‘Middle School Matters,’ largely agreed with that assessment: Particularly in late elementary and middle school, she said, kids “have such a desire to not seem like a baby.” And boys are “suddenly so aware of societal messages about what it means to be tough, and what it means to be masculine.”
Perhaps most important, Fagell noted that adolescent kids are in a unique spot developmentally, one in which they’re particularly hostile toward adults’ assessments of them. “When you are a tween, you do not like adults telling you how you feel, how you should feel, or what you should do, even. [Tweens] like to be treated like the expert in their own life,” she told Fetters. “If a parent says to a 12-year-old, ‘You’re sad,’”—or, for that matter, ‘You’re going to be cold’—“that can make them bristle, because kids that age don’t want to be told how they’re feeling. They’ll tell you how they’re feeling, thank you very much.”
Fagell advises parents to talk to their kids with curiosity instead of authority, and to keep an open mind.“Start with ‘I’m really curious,’ or ‘I’m wondering,’ or ‘I’ve noticed that you don’t like wearing [long pants] in the winter. Tell me more.’ What you might find is that it’s a sensory issue, that they say, ‘I don’t like the way the fabric feels against my skin,’” she said. “You might actually be able to work with that. You could be able to find something that would keep them warm but work for them a little bit better.”
Angela Mattke, a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic Children’s Center in Rochester, Minnesota, also recommends meeting kids in the middle whenever possible, especially if shorts are simply more comfortable for the kid in question. “Sometimes a compromise like wearing sport tights under shorts will work for those children who want to wear shorts all year,” she said—and added that this is something she sees frequently among kids during the chilly Minnesota winter.
But sometimes, Fagell noted, kids just want to do things their own way, or for their own reasons—and in climates where the cold is milder, perhaps above freezing, Fagell advises parents to just “pick their battles … If they’re not going to [get] frostbite—say, if it’s in the 40s—it’s a dumb decision, but they’re unlikely to suffer real harm,” she said.
Perhaps the most important truth about boys who wear shorts all winter, though, is that they do—most of the time—eventually grow out of it.
Research contact: @TheAtlantic