If I had the chance to go back to that marvelous time when my daughter, Elizabeth (Lizzie), was 3, I would have allowed her to wear the mismatched socks. But I didn't. I fought her on that and other mundane matters, which, upon reflection, served no purpose and certainly didn't serve us well.

It was a rainy Saturday. I know that as fact, because while we were arguing (who argues with a 3-year-old?), I stared out the window thinking we couldn't walk the few blocks to Jessica's birthday party, because the rain was unrelenting.

The scene: early morning and Lizzie was already in her party dress, eagerly anticipating the 2 o'clock birthday celebration. Her dress was robin-egg blue. It crinkled when she walked, and puffed out in such a way that she resembled a miniature ballerina.

I had bought the dress at one of those overpriced children's boutiques, and I remember thinking at the time it was too expensive. I rationalized the purchase by convincing myself she would wear it on many future occasions. I denied the fact that 3-year-olds outgrow their clothes quickly.

There she stood looking flouncy and festive holding in her small hands two socks -- one green, the other pink -- that she thought would nicely round out the ensemble.

"The socks don't match," I observed.

"I like them," Lizzie said.

"They don't go with the dress."

"I want to wear them."

"We'll find another pair," I assured, "white, perhaps, will look better."

"I don't want to look better. I like these socks. I'm going to wear them."

"No, you're not," I said, the power struggle now in full bloom.

"You're a mean mom," my daughter suddenly chided, running from the room, the two socks flapping in the air like two pastel-colored wings. Tears accompanied her protest with the sound of her bedroom door slamming as she disappeared behind it to the safety of her room.

A few hours later, peace reigned once more. The rain had stopped, and the sun was high in the sky as Lizzie and I strolled hand in hand to the party, she in her matching white socks, holding Jessica's birthday gift in her little hand.

I recall this moment with embarrassment and regret, as I ask myself the question I have been ruminating on for years: Why do matching socks matter? The answer: They don't. But more importantly, why did they matter to me? Why did I need to exert control by curbing a small child's enthusiasm in making her own fashion statement, which at three could be very adventurous? Who was I to usurp her position on a matter so ridiculously unimportant as socks? Why wasn't I a more permissive parent, not bound up in such prosaic protocol?

Because, I finally concluded, I wanted to be the "perfect mom" who wanted her "perfect child" to appear socially skilled and appropriately dressed at a party for other three year olds all looking party-perfect.

How dumb.

I am happy to report that after stooping so low as to trespass on my 3-year-olds's domain, I caught myself in time to rectify my behavior. Another occasion presented itself soon after when Lizzie had dressed herself for an afternoon at the playground. She had pulled from her drawer a pair of print Danskin pants, and slipped on a flowered T-shirt. On her feet were two striped socks representing all the colors of the rainbow.

"Look mommy," she said with child-like bravado, "Don't I look funny?"

"You do look funny," I acknowledged, adding, "it's the perfect playground attire."

"I'm not `a tire,' " she giggled. "I'm Elizabeth."

Yes, she was Elizabeth, applauding her uniqueness as the creative person she was becoming. We strolled to the park, my mismatched daughter and I, walking along in one shadow, exchanging one of the many mother/daughter moments to follow.

Many such snapshots filled the days of her childhood, and, as she grew, I did, too, with a more cohesive understanding of our respective roles: mine as mother; hers as daughter.

Fast-forward many years: I am at my daughter's home. My granddaughter, Caroline, age 6, my grandson, Andrew, 7, and Lizzie and I, are bound up in Caroline's dilemma.

"What dress should I wear on my first day of school?" she wants to know, parading two options in front of us.

"I hate them both," Andrew says.

"Any one you'd like," Lizzie tells her. "The decision is yours."

"Personally, I prefer the plaid," I butt in.

"Well, I like the other," Caroline announces with authoritative assurance.

And, it was "the other" she wore on that milestone day when she entered first grade.

"At least she's not wearing mismatched socks," Lizzie reminds me, whispering.

Our eyes lock, and I, looking slightly sheepish and repentant, smile and remember.

Judith Marks-White is a Westport writer, and her "In Other Words" appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: joodth@snet.net or at www.judithmarks-white.com