Picky Shoe Mom

Picky Shoe MomMamas, I have a really weird request, but bear with me for a moment. Pull off your socks and shoes and take a look at your feet. Take a good look. What do you see?

Child's foot
This is my 3-year-old’s foot. Notice how his toes spread out. His foot is widest at the top, unlike many shoe designs.

When I look at my feet–my toes especially–I see a total mess. My toes curl unnaturally and are smooshed together. I can’t even move all my toes very well. Even with a pedicure, my feet are simply not pretty.

Now, take a look at your kid’s feet. 

When I look at my 3-year-old’s feet, they are totally perfect. His toes spread out like a fan. He can move every single one of them, including his baby toe! I see him use his feet to help grip when he climbs. He even can even pick up toys with them. I’m in total awe of his perfect, useful little feet.

Shoe-shaped or Foot-shaped Feet?

So, what’s the difference? How did my feet get so messed up? They didn’t start out like this. They probably looked a lot like my son’s when I was his age. In my case, my goofy-looking toes are the result of  . . . shoes. Bad shoes. Shoes that smushed my toes together, shoes that were often too small, and shoes that sometimes even pushed my toes upward, off the ground, like most running shoes do.

To sum it up, my feet are shoe-shaped. On the other hand (or should I say “foot,” ha ha), my son’s feet are feet-shaped. And now I am working hard to keep them that way.

At my house, we’ve become VERY picky about shoes.

For my family, healthy shoes are minimal shoes. Let me walk you through what that means.

People have lots of different takes on minimal shoes (sometimes called “barefoot shoes”), but here are the main things that I look for in footwear for my kid (and for the rest of the family):

  • Having a flat heel (also called zero-drop, this means the heel and toe are at the same level–there’s no rise or lift in the heel)
  • A flexible sole (i.e. not clunky at all, the sole of the shoe can bend and move with the foot).
  • A wide toe box to allow toes to move and spread out naturally
  • No toe spring (this means that the toes rest naturally on the ground and aren’t pushed upward)

Basically, I am looking for a shoe that allows for natural movement, as if my son is walking barefoot.

mimimal kids shoe
Here is an example of a shoe that meets all of my healthy shoe criteria: zero-drop, flexible sole, wide toe box, and no toe spring.

There are some pricey brands out there that specialize in “minimalist” shoes for grown-ups and kids and while that can be an easy route to get great shoes, it’s also often not in my budget. The good news is I’ve also found inexpensive shoes from conventional brands that fit the bill at discount stores, thrift shops, and area consignment sales.

Why does this all matter so much?

Well, our whole bodies depend on our feet–they literally support us all day long. Each foot has 26 bones (that means that about 25% of the bones in our body are found in our feet!), 33 joints, and over 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Simply put, our feet are amazing structures that are essential to our body’s movement.

My own story–which led me here to thinking and writing about healthy feet and footwear–starts a couple years ago with my own debilitating plantar fasciitis and tendon pain. Thanks to a ton of research, trial and error, several failed rounds of orthotics, gobs of exercises to rebuild muscles in my feet, and an eventual switch to healthier shoes (and ones that actually fit!), I’m happy to say that my foot pain is long gone. And this experience has made me a passionate advocate for promoting foot health.

In Other Words . . . 

Don’t do it! This clunky shoe won’t let a kiddo’s foot move at all. It also pushes the toes upward.

And it’s not just me, of course. I reached out to some other moms to get their thoughts on the importance of minimalist footwear for their kids. Here’s some of what they had to say:

I was originally compelled to try minimalist shoes because the argument that conventional shoes act like casts made so much sense. Now that we’ve been in them for years, I notice a remarkable difference in gait and clumsiness when my kids have to wear conventional shoes for any reason. -Angie from Sheboygan

My 10 year old daughter wears minimalist shoes. It took a little bit of teaching and patience on my part, but over the years she has learned to value shoes that are good for her feet over shoes that are fancy. -Elissa from Madison

Kids [especially new walkers] in thick, inflexible shoes have such a difficult, awkward time walking. Every time I see it, I want to pull off those shoes! -Aurora from Brownsburg, Indiana

I love a wide, light, super flexible shoe . . . I am an advocate for evolutionary and biologically typical child driven development, therefore being barefoot, or as close as possible, supports a child’s rapid development across multiple domains. -Charis from Portland, Oregon

Why I am a Picky Shoe Mom

minimal kids shoes
Here are a few pairs of my son’s shoes. Notice how different they look–especially in the toe area–from conventional shoes.

While minimal shoes aren’t right for everyone, I’m just here to share my own story and experience in case it helps someone else out there. Ditching clunky, toe-smooshing footwear has made a huge difference in my own life. And as a mom, I want what I believe is best for my kid, which is why I have become soooo picky about the shoes he wears.

So, mamas, take a look at your feet again. Pretty or not, they are the feet that carry you through your day. They are the feet that lug babies and groceries and backpacks and briefcases. They are feet that dance, that walk you through good times and bad times, they are always there. They are your own amazing feet. Whether you are ready ditch your high heels for a pair of minimalist kicks or not, give your feet a little love today. They deserve it.


Notes and Resources

There’s a lot of good information out there about choosing healthy shoes for the whole family. I’ve included a brief list of resources here about the science behind healthy feet and research about how footwear literally shapes foot health (for better or worse). This is just a tiny sampling of resources, ones that have been important for me and my family and we changed our shoe-wearing habits.

And of course, if you or your children are dealing with any foot issues, it’s important to check in with your doc or physical therapist. There are certain conditions where minimal footwear might not be the best choice for you.


  • I LOVE this video! LOVE it! Short and sweet, and presented by a sports podiatrist, it sums up some things to look for (and to avoid) in shoes for kids.
  • This fascinating, info-laden episode of the podcast Freakonomics dives into our culture of shoes and the value of minimal footwear. It makes a great starting place if you want to learn more about how our footwear affects our whole bodies. Includes interviews with Dr. Irene Davis and Daniel E. Lieberman of Harvard University. There’s also a long list of resources that are referenced in the piece.
  • I can’t recommend Katy Bowman’s work enough, especially her books Whole Body Barefoot and Simple Steps to Foot Pain Relief! (It was the advice and exercises in Simple Steps that helped me beat my plantar fasciitis.) Bowman is a biomechanist who focuses her work on the role movement plays in our bodies. Her work is rooted in science and her suggestions are generally down to earth. She also has an info-packed website, a strong social media presence, and a podcast series. Here’s her guide to back-to-school shoe shopping.
  • This article from The Guardian provides an overview of some of the research supporting minimalist and barefoot shoes for kids.
  • I like this article from Time. It takes a less all-or-nothing approach to shoes, while emphasizing the importance of minimal shoes and spending time barefoot.
  • Here’s a guide to transitioning to minimal shoes. Note: it is from a shoe company, but the information contained is still really helpful.
  • This comes from another shoe company, but I love the photo of the two different shoes here: one foot-shaped and one, well, NOT foot-shaped!
  • You Walk Wrong” is a interesting (albeit kind of long) read from New York Magazine.
Amelia Cook Fontella is a writer, teacher, designer, and entrepreneur. She lives in a cozy little house on Madison’s east side with her husband Rob, kiddos Frankie and Luisa, and a puggle named Starla. Amelia has an MFA in creative writing and regularly teaches in the Madison area, including her own Get Inspired Workshop classes. Amelia and Rob own Green Table Media where they help small businesses and community organizations tell their stories. Amelia adores traveling the world, exploring things in her own backyard, going swimming, and just about anything to do with creativity, writing, and the arts. She’s good at finding other people’s lost things and makes a mean brandy slush.


  1. “The good news is I’ve also found inexpensive shoes from conventional brands that fit the bill at discount stores, thrift shops, and area consignment sales. ” Can you elaborate on this more?

    • Good question! Basically, I check shoes EVERYWHERE (from Target to Goodwill to hand-me-down bags from friends) to find shoes that fit the criteria I mention in the article (flat heel, flexible sole, wide toe box, no toe drop). Water shoes often fit the bill and are usually super cheap. I’ve also found great minimal options while on vacation, shopping at a Wal-Mart (not my usual go-to, I will admit). Both my son and I each have a pair of Wal-Mart shoes that we wear a lot. You’ll know me if you see me out shopping, trying to roll shoes into balls and pulling out insoles to see if they are zero-drop, ha ha ha. There are some inexpensive moccasin style shoes that we’ve bought on Amazon (Sayoyo and Carozoo are two brands) that we also love.

  2. Hello & thank you, Amelia!

    I’m wondering if you’ve come across any warm & waterproof boots that match the ‘sole’ of your efforts. Thank you for any leads!

    • Hi, bird! For kids, I’ve heard good things about MyMayus with liners but haven’t tried them. We’re trying Baby Bogs this year. For me, I love the Columbia Minx (I take out the insoles to make them zero-drop) for a relatively affordable, minimalish opton. There are different styles, but mine is waterproof and super warm. Boots are the most challenging thing! And of course we need them here in Wisconsin!


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