Lindsey Miller first took note of the boys who refused to wear long pants when she was in grade school. At her elementary school in Maryland, a few particular boys made a habit of wearing shorts to school all winter, even though January temperatures in the mid-Atlantic state routinely drop below freezing. And it was always boys, she told me, never female students—“Girls made fun of them, but other guys cheered them on,” she recalled. One kid she knew in third grade, whose name has escaped her memory in the decade-plus since, “wore basically the same pair of shorts all year,” Miller, now 20, remembered.
The “one kid who wears shorts to school all year”: In regions that get cold and snowy in the winter, he’s a figure that’s equal parts familiar and bewildering to kids and teachers alike, and his clothing choices present an annual hassle for his parents. On Twitter, where Lindsey Miller once joked about the middle-school winter-shorts boy, he is in fact the butt of a number of observational jokes, many of them from classmates and beleaguered moms and dads: “There’s really this dude wearing shorts at school… IN THE WINTER.” “Have kids so you can argue with tiny, opinionated people about why they can’t wear shorts in winter and then coats when it’s 80 degrees.” Educators at a middle school and high school in Minnesota confirmed to me that they can count on having two or three of him every year, arriving at school after braving the morning windchill with bare calves. (In the interest of transparency, both were former teachers of mine, who I’m sure were perplexed to hear from me for the first time in more than a decade only to be asked about this.)
In other words, the Boy Who Wears Shorts All Winter is a highly recognizable but largely inscrutable character, and when I asked parents, teachers, child psychologists, and a former B.W.W.S.A.W. himself to try to explain what exactly motivates such a plainly 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. told me that her 8-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, 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 to me in an email. And when extreme cold or wind chill comes into the equation, he 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,” Miller told me. She also noted that some shorts-wearers with whom she’d crossed paths seemed to consider shorts in the wintertime a display of strength or toughness. From what she could tell, being cold when it was cold outside was, to some young men, “apparently wimpy.”
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.”
Fagell also noted that for boys, being bundled up in winter outerwear—especially in soft, fuzzy garments like mittens or beanies—can feel particularly babyish. (Think of A Christmas Story’s famous “I can’t put my arms down!” scene, which derives its humor directly from the indignity of a little boy being aggressively swaddled in winter wear by his protective mom.) So wearing shorts—or perhaps more precisely, exercising the autonomy to choose to wear shorts—during what most people consider parka weather may feel to some kids and adolescents like the ultimate display of maturity and wardrobe independence. (Meanwhile, she pointed out, many young girls recognize soft, fuzzy outerwear as desirably, rather than revoltingly, cute.)
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 me. “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.”
This tendency, combined with severely cold temperatures, can result in a situation that’s frustrating for adults. Parents often worry about safety—or about the looks or questions they might get from teachers or other parents. As Frank, a dad in Philadelphia told me, someone who saw his son out in shorts once threatened to call Child Protective Services. (Frank requested that his last name be omitted to avoid making his son identifiable in what could be a mildly embarrassing story, though he clarified that the phone call was never actually made.) In situations like these, 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 told me—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.
Tyler Wood, 31, remembers wearing shorts all winter in snowy Boulder, Colorado, as a middle-schooler. He did it partly because he wanted to look like a member of Blink-182 every day of the year, partly because he was convinced his newly sprouting leg hair would keep him warm, and partly because his mother begged him to put on something more sensible. That last one, he added, might have been a key factor: “I think it probably had to do with the age,” he said. “Having a little more personal agency, and a little of that ‘You can’t make me’” attitude.
With the benefit of hindsight, Wood now admits that it also “might have been a little bit of an attention thing.” Other kids would warn him that he’d freeze at recess, and Wood got a small thrill out of retorting, “Oh, definitely not. I love wearing shorts.” After a while, though, he recalled, wearing shorts when it was cold out became something he had to keep doing simply because he was already known as the Boy Who Wears Shorts. “There were days that got below zero”—when wearing pants would have been nice—“but it wasn’t even really a choice at that point,” he remembered with a laugh. “It’s like, if you’re going to wear shorts when it’s 30 degrees out, you have to be ready when it’s -10. This is your time to shine!”
Wood, who still lives in Boulder, doesn’t remember exactly when his stance on wearing long pants changed. But it did, and nowadays, he told me, his legs are (usually) adequately covered when he ventures out into the Colorado snow. And when he and his mom look back on his middle-school years, he told me she simply chuckles and says to him, “You were gonna do what you were gonna do at that age.”