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What Not to Wear

Todd Pinsky was shopping for his wife at a tony boutique when he noticed the saleswoman eyeing him and his daughter, Emma, then 3, with disdain. "Emma looked like a bag lady," says the Santa Cruz, CA, dad. "The woman said, 'Well, I guess we know who dressed her.'" Actually, Emma  -- whose favorite outfit at the time was a polka-dot skirt and a plaid shirt  -- had dressed herself.

Preschoolers are prone to making, um, interesting wardrobe choices as they start to assert more control over their lives. Here's how to handle your child's crimes of fashion:

? Choose your battles. It's reasonable to require shoes in restaurants and warm clothing in midwinter, but arguing over whether your child can wear mismatched socks to school is just a waste of energy. (Don't stress about her teachers questioning your parenting skills -- they've seen it all.)

? Divide clothing into categories, such as playwear, school outfits, and fancy clothes. Tell your child that you'll choose which category is appropriate, but that she's free to wear whatever she wants within that particular group.

? Call for backup. Ask babysitters, relatives, and other caregivers to compliment well-chosen outfits (but to ignore freaky combos).

? Plan a week's wardrobe in advance, and let your child weigh in. Letting her wear her taffeta dress when she's home may make it easier to coax her into overalls for preschool.