Teens vs. coats: The generational quarrel that won’t chill out

It’s a cool fall day. The leaves have long disappeared, and there’s a thin, crunchy layer of snow on the grass — typical for autumn, but still, it’s a not-so-kind reminder that months of winter still lie ahead.

It’s also the season to pull the winter jackets and snow boots out of storage. But outside Calgary’s Western Canada High School during a recent lunch hour, coats are clearly optional.

“I have a jacket in my locker, I just don’t want to wear it because it’s not that bad out,” said Aiden Whitney, a T-shirt-clad teenager whose breath was visible in the crisp air.

Whitney wasn’t alone in such sartorial choices — not only among current high school peers that day, but also the generations of teens before them. It seems for as long as parents have been telling kids to put on a coat, kids have been ignoring the advice. 

So what’s up with that? Is it peer pressure? A radical act of teenage rebellion? Do young people actually not get cold?

As it turns out, there’s a lot to unpack here.

Let’s begin by circling back to those students hanging out along 17th Avenue S.W. on their chilly lunch break.

“Style is prioritized over warmth. If you look good, you feel good, even though you’re freezing,” said high schooler Andreea Mihai.

“I don’t want to look like a snowman,” Mihai added.

‘Style is prioritized over warmth. If you look good, you feel good, even though you’re freezing,’ said Calgary teen Andreea Mihai. (Natalie Valleau/CBC)

Many others agreed that being underdressed for winter is also fine if the gear is a struggle to store.

“I’d rather be cold and have a cute vest than be wearing a bulky jacket,” said Valeria Hernandez.

Hernandez added that winter coats feel “clunky” and “disorganized.”

“I feel like a big marshmallow and I just don’t like that,” said Hernandez.

Despite knowing the consequences, the dozen-plus students CBC News spoke with — dressed warmly or not — said the pros of feeling cool outweighed the cons of being cold.

Hernandez has regretted the decision to ditch the winter jacket in the past.

“But I would do it again.”

To be cool or be cold? That is the question

The kids vs. coats debate has seen many iterations, from core temperature and comfort to fashion and rebellion

Over the years, people have suggested the reason kids don’t want to wear a coat is because they run a little hotter than adults. It’s been suggested kids may have a higher body temperature than their adult counterparts — however, the science around body temperature seems murky

Kyle Ganson specializes in adolescent research at the University of Toronto, where he’s an assistant professor with the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.

He believes there are a range of emotional and biological factors at play.

There are “some physiological aspects around puberty, you know, bodies are changing,” he said. “It might just be uncomfortable to wear a larger jacket.”

Another factor is brain development, particularly that of the prefrontal cortex, he said.

That’s the part of the brain that controls exercising judgment and decision-making and the moderation of certain social behaviours. One of the last parts of the brain to mature, this area doesn’t fully develop until around age 25.

“[Adults] recognize that it’s cold out, and you’re like, ‘Oh, my rational brain is telling me it’s cold out, I know the weather is cold and so I will wear a jacket because I want to keep warm,'” Ganson said. 

So what is going on inside teens’ heads?

“[Adolescents] are a bit more reactionary,” he said.

a portrait of a person with blonde hair and glasses
Kyle Ganson, assistant professor with the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto, specializes in adolescent research. Ganson said winter jacket-defiance is likely just a natural, healthy part of growing up. (Kyle Ganson)

“They’re not necessarily thinking so much about what might happen if [they] do A, B or C, but instead … they’re being much more reactive and following the crowd, following emotional kinds of responses, emotional drives versus cognitive thought.”

He added that the biological factors — like puberty and brain development — blended with extreme social pressures are like ingredients for a soup.

“All those things together are stirred around,” creating the teenage experience, he said.

But it’s not just how teenagers think — it’s what they’re thinking about.

“They’re kind of making decisions based on what might feel right to them, who they are, as a more independent being,” said Ganson.

Teens not wanting to wear winter coats is about what Ganson calls “identity formation,” a sort of self-expression and discovery, totally unique to the teenage experience.

Ganson echoed what Calgary high school students told CBC News about peer pressure and confidence, especially when it comes to what he calls “performative aspects” of gender, sexuality, personal style and more. 

Put more plainly: “Teens are wanting to express themselves, express their identities and who they see themselves as,” he said.

Throughout childhood, kids look to their parents for security and confirmation, and Ganson said adolescence is when people start looking to their peers for validation and connection.

So it’s not as simple as being a rebel without a coat.

“It’s just the way that kids are trying to express themselves and separate [from their parents] in a healthy, experimental way, like, ‘What happens when I wear these clothes,’ and, ‘What happens when I get into arguments with my parents and try to be who I want to be,'” he said.

Ultimately, Ganson said, winter jacket-defiance is likely just a natural, healthy part of growing up. 

Linda Forde, a counsellor at STEM Innovation Academy in Calgary, said today’s teens are mature enough to understand why winter preparedness matters, but they are more affected by social media than the previous generation. 

Seasonal style choices are no exception, she said.

“It’s really important to get their perspectives because they are living a different experience than we did,” she said. “They simply are.”

Teenager Kayan Shaw told CBC News outside school that even though mom might still worry, she doesn’t try to force Shaw to wear a coat anymore.

“We’re old enough now that [our parents] kind of just gave up,” Shaw said.

Shaw explained that — even in extreme sub-zero weather conditions — dressing too warm might mean “backlash” from peers.

three young boys stand outside, one speaks into a microphone
‘If you wear snow pants to school, you’re probably going to get a little bit of backlash,’ said Kayan Shaw. (Natalie Valleau/CBC)

Forde, a mother herself, said communicating with her own son means considering his thoughts and feelings to understand what might be influencing his decisions. 

“Yes, they’re young and still need guidance.… Nevertheless, they also have a lot to give and to teach us,” she said.

Going coatless won’t give you a cold

Meanwhile, one thing adults have been teaching — or perhaps preaching to — generations of teens has been to zip up their coats or catch a cold. But all the nagging doesn’t make it true.

“It doesn’t work how you might think it would work,” said Dr. Eddy Lang, clinical department head for emergency medicine in the Calgary zone. “It’s impossible to catch a cold from getting cold, from having an open zipper and your chest getting cold.”

Lang said catching colds in the winter months has more to do with the spread of viruses during the holiday-related uptick in social gatherings. Being out in a light jacket instead of a winter coat when the temperature dips a couple of degrees below freezing isn’t a big deal, he said. 

Still, Lang noted the weather can change quickly. The ER physician encourages adolescents — and everyone else — to be prepared for whatever winter may bring.

“Temperatures with the wind chill can definitely get down to below –20 [Celsius] with very little notice here in Calgary,” said Lang, citing the dangers of frostbite and hypothermia.

a girl in a white winter coat speaks into a microphone
‘The ‘fit is what matters most,’ said Alexia Abell, who believes that styling winter clothes can be difficult for young people. (Natalie Valleau/CBC)

In the end, as problems go, underdressed teens may be more of a curiosity for parents than a worry. It’s been that way for decades.

Back along 17th Avenue, many students are dressed for snow, including Alexia Abell, who prefers to wear a puffy down-filled jacket to stay warm. 

Abell has also noticed many underdressed peers.

“One guy over there was wearing a T-shirt, and I’m like, ‘What are you doing? Are you not cold?’ I was so confused.” 

The teens who spoke with CBC News all agreed that stereotypes of coat-resistant teens are pretty much true — they underdress for the weather, and they totally do it on purpose. 

“It depends on the person. It’s really their choice. If you want to dress, like, shorts and a T-shirt like it’s summer … it doesn’t bother me,” said Abell’s friend, Caius Schumann. 

“Personally, I’ll just stick with two sweaters,” said Schumann. “If you have a good outfit but you’re not dressed for the weather, it’s OK.”

And even teens like the aptly-dressed Abell believe being cold is a small price to pay to feel confident.

“The ‘fit is what matters most,” said Abell.

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