Shelley Boettcher’s eight-year-old son, Steen, isn’t a tween yet, but he’s already driving her nuts with his interest in fashion. He wants DC or Nike shoes, and hats with a flat brim, like Justin Bieber.
“He’s started to get really conscious about what he’s wearing, and we’re not that kind of family,” says the Calgary mom. “I ignore it as much as I can — I’m not going to buy an $80 hoodie for an eight-year-old.”
It’s normal for tweens to become brand-aware and covet what the cool kids in class are wearing, says Ottawa family psychologist Maggie Mamen, author of The Pampered Child Syndrome.
“This is the age when children really start to notice what other children have. They want to be bigger and they want to look older,” says Mamen. They also want to be liked, and looking the part sometimes helps.
“The nine-to-11 age group can persuade parents to spend money they otherwise would not spend. Parents feel anxious when their children are rejected or excluded. The child tells them, ‘If I don’t have one, I’m going to be the only person in the class who doesn’t,’” she explains.
Allison Ford can relate. The Vancouver mom remembers when her oldest daughter, Mackenzie, then turning 12, was desperate for a designer hoodie. Ford wanted her daughter to fit in, but she was outraged by the item’s $94 price tag.
“I told her that for that money, she could buy five other things. But Mackenzie said it had to be the specific brand,” says Ford. With mixed feelings, she purchased the hoodie for Mackenzie as her birthday gift. Ford has since instituted a clothing allowance for her three children. They each get two big shopping trips a year: $250 at the start of summer and $500 for back-to-school. But, if they need something between shopping trips, and it’s above a set price, the kids are expected to pay the difference. “I don’t know if there’s an easy answer,” she says.
Calgary fashion stylist Kim Flanagan’s tact is to turn clothing conversations into teaching moments about individuality and personal expression. Her eight-year-old daughter, Kenna, recently noticed that the other girls at her dance school wear Triple Flip ensembles including matching leggings, skirt, top, jacket and dance bags, whereas Kenna shows up in a t-shirt and shorts.
“Kenna said, ‘Should I get one?’ I said, ‘Well, do you even like those outfits?’ I asked her what she likes and, more importantly, why. Because I’m a stylist, people expect my kids to look a certain way. But my daughter is messy — she’s a tomboy. I want her to be her,” says Flanagan.
Squabbles over clothes can be about the price tag, but they can also be about family values. if spending $150 on a pair of ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses for your 10-year-old makes you feel sick, don’t do it. on the other hand, some parents love to shop with their kids, and it can be a fun way to bond or pamper them. But indulging kids in this way becomes a problem if they start feeling entitled or ostracize other children who dress differently, says Mamen.
When a request is so outrageous you have to say no, it’s important to let children know why. For example, “For that amount you could buy an entire wardrobe, not just one pair of designer jeans,” or, “why don’t we try to find nice jeans second-hand,” or, “in our family we spend money on life experiences like travel rather than designer jeans.” Parents need to ask themselves which values they want their children to pick up, says Mamen. “We’re the ones who have to make the tough decisions.”
A version of this article appeared in our April 2013 issue with the headline “Clothing battles,” p. 72.