It’s one of the most universal battles of childhood: getting kids to layer up when it’s cold outside. Every Spring and Fall, parents will have many conversations that go something like this:
“Jamie, put your jacket on.”
“But I’m not cold.”
“But you need your jacket on, it’s cold outside.”
“I don’t think it’s cold out here.”
As parents, we’re certain we know best. Surely we, the mature adults, can better judge when it is and isn’t too cold outside. And so we typically force our children to put on their coat as they squirm and fuss as though we’re saddling them with a straightjacket. But what if the kids are right?
This discrepancy in perceptions has always befuddled me. As a teacher in Colorado, it would never fail that the first sunny day in February or March, the playground would be littered with jackets that were strewn about and tossed aside like a Goodwill center ransacked by a tornado. Yet the day seemed cold by teacher standards – the jackets typically start getting tossed when the temps hit the high 40s to low 50s.
Considering it our civic duty as adults to ensure each child is properly swaddled so as to be warm and toasty at all times (and fearing the wrath of parents if they ever caught us shirking our duty in this regard, we’d dutifully spend our outside time scolding the kids to put their jacket back on. They would whine, complain, and eventually comply . . . just long enough to ditch it somewhere else, or walk around with it hanging off their arms while panting like a dog left in a hot car.
The other day I was reading an article that made me question this whole phenomenon once again. It was talking about cold exposure as it relates to weight loss. It seems that aside from stuffing our faces with cheeseburgers and sitting around all day without much exercise, experts believe that our overly cozy living environments may be another factor fueling our ever-growing waistlines. It’s well known that you burn more calories when cold in order to maintain your core body temperature, and so by spending 24 hours a day in climate controlled homes, offices, and cars, sleeping inside under lots of blankets, we’re burning less calories for body heat than we were before.
But what really got my attention was the idea that we’ve become conditioned to warmth. We used to weather differences in temperature without even noticing it. Now we spend the bulk of our days in rooms that hover within a few degrees of each other and never drop below a certain threshold. We’re so accustomed to a certain temperature that any variation from it seems more uncomfortable than it normally would be. This fact is demonstrated by people who have taken to wearing “cold vests” as a way to burn more calories. “The first time you put it on, it’s a bit shocking, to be honest,” says Wayne Hayes, inventor of the vest. “You feel like, Holy sh*t, this is cold.”1 But once you’ve worn it a few times and adapted, most people barely notice they have it on.
And that, I believe, is the answer to the riddle of why adults argue it’s cold outside when kids insist it’s not. Children, lacking the lifetime of temperature conditioning we’ve endured, may actually have a more natural tolerance for temperature differentials than we do. What we old people see as cold and uncomfortable may barely register to them. Their bodies are still programmed to accommodate a much wider variety in temperature swings, and so a 50-degree day may not seem the least bit cold to a child. It’s well within their range of comfortable. In fact, feral children who grew up outdoors have been known to run around naked in the snow without showing the least bit of discomfort.2 Maybe, just maybe, their assessment of temperatures is more accurate than our own.
So the next time your kids complain that it’s hot outside and they don’t need a jacket, rather than playing jacket Nazi and forcing them to squirm inside that wearable oven mitt to appease you, consider the possibility that they might actually be right. Besides, a little cold never hurt anybody. It may even allow them to burn through some extra calories.
1. James Hamblin, “Will global warming make me look fat?” The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2015
2 Suzie Orbach, Bodies, 2009, pp. 37-43