When you give a kid a coat

by Brian Clarey

Kids hate coats. I don’t know why this is — all I know is they hate coats like they hate oatmeal and raisins and early bedtimes.

I used to hate coats, too, particularly the big, bulky ones my mother bought me: the puffy, down-filled blue one that made my eyes water; the itchy, woolen job with the toggle buttons that practically begged for an asskicking to be delivered to the wearer; the red one — red! — that was handed down from my sister.

Just thinking about those coats right now fills me with rage and shame.

So I get it. But kids’ coats have come a’  long way since the 1970s Mighty Mac era. Kids’ coats are cool these days: slim cuts and faux leather, sweet images like flame jobs and skulls, hoodies sewn into the lining of the coat… awesome.

There are even some coats made for kids that I would wear myself.

So really, there is no reason for my fashion-forward 12-year-old son to hate coats, and yet hate coats he does.

He spent the first part of this winter adamantly refusing to put one on in the morning, walking to the bus stop on the corner in a short-sleeved SMOD shirt. I’d see him there on my way into work, shivering among the other kids at the stop, all of whom were wearing coats.

I’ll note that no amount of cajoling, bargaining or even outright threatening would make this kid put on a coat, though he had a whole closet full of them.

On our annual Christmas trip to New York, my mother thought she had a solution.

“I’ll just bring him to the store and let him pick out any coat he wants!” I snickered at this. She had no idea who she was dealing with. They returned from the store with a tween-sized pea coat, nearly identical to the one I wear when the weather turns nasty. I was flattered. And for the next few days, my son did indeed wear this coat — on a couple trips into New York City, in the car on the way to our Christmas celebration at my aunt’s house, when he went out to run errands with my father.

Could the solution really have been so simple? Of course not. Upon our return to North Carolina, the coat embargo began anew, even though temperatures routinely hovered near freezing in the mornings when he waited for the bus.

Exasperated, I begged him to tell me what the big deal was.

“Just wear the damn coat,” I said. “Take it off when you get to school.”

That, he told me, was part of the problem. His school, as of this year, has discontinued the use of lockers by the students. Were he to wear a coat to school, he explained, he would have nowhere to put it once he got to school and be forced to carry it around all day.

While I don’t think that’s such a big issue — and neither, apparently, do any of the other kids at the bus stop — for my son this was a dealbreaker. And because I remember well the strength of conviction a 12-year-old can muster when he needs to, I let it drop.

Screw him, I thought. He wants to freeze his ass off, let him.

And so it went for a couple more weeks. Until one day I came home from work to find him sitting on the couch with my wife.

“Tell him what happened today,” she said to our son. And so he did. A few doors down the block, about five kids near to my son’s age live in a foster home. They seem like fine kids to me — I see them playing basketball and riding skateboards through the neighborhood, and at the bus stop, in their coats, waiting with my son for their daily ride to school.

That day, after school, the foster kids approached my son as a group and made to him a gift.

Naturally, it was a coat. And not just one coat — three coats. First I snorted a laugh. Then I got a little self-righteous: The neighbors think we can’t afford a coat for our kid! We are gonna march right down there and give those coats back!

Then my son, he of the wicked stubborn streak and shivering bus-stop mornings, snapped me out of it.

“It wasn’t like that,” he said. He described his bus-stop friends, their thoughtfulness, how they insisted he keep the coats even as he tried to give them back.

“It made me feel really good,” he said. “I think it made them feel really good, too.”

And just like that I got over myself. We still marched down to the group home on my street, in thankfulness instead of indignation. Rather than ring the doorbell and return the coats, depriving these kids of their genuine act of kindness, we slipped a thank-you note in the mailbox and walked back home.

And besides teaching my son and I a lesson in humility, generosity and goodwill, my neighbors achieved something else.

Now, every morning before he leaves for the bus stop, my son puts on a coat.