Yes, protect them from themselves
By Beth Kohl
When I grew up, in the seventies and eighties, I consumed my fair share of pop culture. Yours, too. From my Happy Days T-shirt—a leather-jacketed Fonz with his thumbs cocked out to the side, the word Ayyyy drawn out beneath him—to my various hairstyles, including bangs like a cresting wave, wacky asymmetrical bobs revealing a buzzed under-layer, and the tail that I would dye different colors for seasonal effect. I dug my looks, had fun playing around with them, and ignored my mom, who preferred my hair longer, flatter, and pulled back in a headband or ponytail. I kept on experimenting, chopping my hair, changing its color, and piercing my ears until I’d exhausted the entire lobe. Indeed, this is what kids do. It’s what they’ve always done.
But times have changed in a ways that make it far riskier to butt out and let our kids experiment freely with the trends of the day. We’ve become a consumerist culture: a brand-coveting, acquisitive, and celebrity-obsessed society. And the celebrities we obsess over have clothes that are much sexier than Molly Ringwald’s flapper-inspired schmatas—shorter, sheerer, and lower-rising—making this a particularly sticky issue for little girls who often naively stumble into dangerous, adult terrain.
I am the proud (and mostly laid back) mother of three daughters, three future adolescents and, someday, women. We are a hand-me-and-then-me-down family. My eldest daughter gets the new stuff, but only those items that pass my longevity litmus tests. I look for classics; Levi’s, vintage-style blouses fashioned from quaint floral fabrics, and brightly colored T-shirts with no lettering on them, the better to let the wearer shine through.
For the longest time (six years to be exact), my daughters unquestioningly wore what I picked out, ate much of what I offered, no matter how raw or cooked or orange or green, and played with “brick and mortar” type toys—Lincoln Logs and Tinkertoys and sock monkeys, classic amusements from my own childhood.
Suddenly, however, I’m getting flak. My first grader, Sophia, no longer thinks pretty, classic, comfortable or unique are adequate attributes for school wear. (Weekends are a different matter entirely. She’ll happily spend two days wearing any old thing in her closet, proof to me that this is about a mob mentality.) But Monday through Friday, she wants to wear what her stylish peers wear. Short jean skirts, sans tights, sans leggings, camisole tops, cropped sweatshirts and Crocs, those round-toed rubber clogs punctured with lima-bean-sized holes that serve as holders for the charms to be acquired and collected and displayed and compared.
Sophia also wants virtual pets and computer games, an iPod, and a cell phone. I tell her no, not yet. I remind her that one day she’ll have a job and be able to purchase just what she wants and to dress like the whore of Babylon, if that is what pleases her. (What’s a whore? Who is Babylon? she wonders.) But until then, I’m not ready to have her retreat into a world of insularity and simulated connection.
A parent needs to choose her battles. It seems silly, misguided, puritanical and a downright bad strategy to nix everything that smacks of trendiness. Certainly, some of the trendiest items are harmless in and of themselves, their popularity largely based upon practicality or because they’re so darn cute. And at some point our children naturally feel the need to separate from us, to establish their own identities. A good parent cannot, should not, force her tastes on her children forever or prevent her children from evolving. But it is incumbent upon parents to take a good, hard look at the trends and decide if an item’s ubiquity proves its harmlessness.
Buying into trends enforces a couple of unfortunate effects. First, owning brand-name stuff is a form of crass elitism if the goal of ownership is the brand rather than the item itself. (That, as far as I can understand it, is the very point of trendiness.) Second, limits are healthy for our children, lending them a sense of security and their parents a hedge against over-indulgence. Third, once our kids enter this fray, wearing or owning these trendy things, they’re a part of a competitive mob, comparing who has the most Webkinz or whose Crocs have been most pimped. They end up a member of the hierarchy, whether the coolest, least cool, or, worst of all, an invisible member of the group.
Finally, many of the trendsetters our children see in the media, particularly the current crop of female ones, make a virtue of drugs and extreme diets, of trashy clothes and trashedness, of a dangerous precociousness beyond fashion. And even if you’d never consider buying your children designer bags or clothes like Britney’s or Lindsay’s, these styles filter down to the places where we shop, and acquiring these items only fuels the market for them. Manufacturers, and the parents who blindly buy their products, are creating a preoccupation with style and, more damaging, looks.
Our children need to foster deeper connections than a shared brand of dress. I’m not suggesting that most children are mature enough to analyze their affinities and determine which are worthwhile. I also know better than to assume every kid is a natural-born leader with an evolved sense of personal style. Certainly our kids should be allowed to experiment, just as I was. But just because my kids don’t have the same exact brands as other children, just because their parents know better than to allow them to wear suggestive clothing or T-shirts extolling shallow, soulless pursuits (“I Live to Shop” spelled out in rhinestones) doesn’t make them outsiders. It shows they are respected as potential independent thinkers, even if I have to do a little of that thinking for them right now.
Beth Kohl lives in Winnetka, Illinois with her husband and three daughters. She is working on her first novel.
No, buying is a learning experience
By Heather Annastasia Siladi
When I was seventeen, my friend at work got a beautiful tattoo on her thigh. I mentioned to my father that I was thinking about getting one also, of a little poison arrow frog. The tirade that followed lasted for at least an hour. I was threatened with everything from grounding to eternal damnation. My dad took a passing impulse, one I probably would have forgotten about by my eighteenth birthday, and turned it into my sole mission in life. I researched local tattoo artists, drew my own tattoo, and yes, I still have my poison arrow frog today.
It was one of the most satisfying purchases I had ever made.
I understand, and share, the concerns of many parents about the extent to which consumerism can grip our children. As I write, my nine-year-old son, Cole, is spreading a Bionicle poster across my desk and explaining which one has the most armor and agility, which one glows in the dark, and how they’re all available at Wal-Mart for the shockingly low price of $8.99.
I realize he’s being manipulated by a toy company, and I tell him that.
There are issues that go hand-in-hand with such fads that we as parents must address, like financial responsibility and peer pressure, but we have to separate consumerism from the others. If a child expresses views that are contrary to her family’s values through clothing and music purchases, it’s not the purchases that are the issue, but her views.
My younger brother likes to throw around the word “pimp” when referring to something cool and extravagant. That coat is pimp. One day, when my boys were in the first grade, my son Connor came home and mentioned that he and a friend were playing pimp at recess. After a few questions, I quickly learned that neither boy had the slightest clue what a pimp was, and they were referring to acting cool. I sat both my boys down and explained that a pimp was a bad man who hurts women, and neither of them has used the word to mean “cool” since.
I realize these conversations are much easier with a six-year-old than with a sixteen-year-old. Often, sixteen-year-olds will deliberately listen to music and wear clothes that make their parents uncomfortable because they are trying to establish an identity separate from their parents. But flipping out when teens push your buttons will probably only make the situation worse.
Companies are not going to stop marketing products to our kids, and the musicians we hate are not going to stop making CDs, so I choose to think rationally about what my options are and how I can best influence my kids to make good decisions. I also work at resisting the temptation to think of my children as extensions of myself; they are their own people with their own tastes.
My goal as a parent is to allow my kids to find their own path through life by letting them make personal decisions about how they want to dress and with whom they want to socialize. Of course we should step in when kids are in danger of crossing the line in what’s appropriate or safe (and I consider sexy clothes on young teen girls a safety issue), but we should otherwise give kids space to explore their world and find their place in it, even if it means allowing them to feel the sting of regret when they blow their allowance, or letting them get caught up in the latest fad.
Music is a good example. Parents should enforce spending limits on CDs and volume limits on headphones, but when a parent flips out and says, “You can’t listen to that,” not only is she making her child want the CD more, she isn’t respecting the child as a human being.
When kids get wrapped up in a particular band or genre of music, it’s because that music is speaking to them and inspiring them in some way. Most music, no matter how incomprehensible to an outsider, is made by talented artists who put a lot of work into creating it. If a child feels a deep connection to this music (even if that connection is being used by corporate interests to encourage purchases) the child will feel violated and resentful if a parent steps in and forbids the music completely.
For the most part, I think we can relax. If we have been good role models, exposure to consumerism, sexism, racism, and all the other isms isn’t nearly as dangerous as we fear it is.
If, several years from now, one of my boys comes home from the mall with a pro-pot T-shirt, I’ll know it’s time to sit down and have a talk. But we won’t be talking about where he got the shirt or how much it cost; we’ll be talking about the message it sends and why he thinks it’s appropriate to plaster it across his chest. Just as they needed to gain practice and confidence to walk or ride a bike, they need to become responsible consumers with the help of a guiding hand that is getting ready to let go.
Heather Annastasia Siladi is a freelance writer, wife, and mother of twin boys, Cole and Connor. Read more of her work at: http://heatherannastasia.blogspot.com.
Brain, Child (Summer 2007)