Born to Buy: From Tony the Tiger to Slime Time Live

This is the fourth discussion in a “book club” series on Born to Buy by Juliet Schor, which focuses on consumerism issues and young children. You can jump back to the first discussion if you’d like. This discussion covers the first portion of the third chapter ending at the subheading “Kids Rule: Nickelodeon and the Anti-Adult Bias,” including pages 39 through 51.

born to buyAt this point, Schor’s book delves deep into marketing of children’s products, and as I read through this chapter, I couldn’t help but repeatedly see it echoing in my own life.

During my own childhood, advertising was a repeated influence on me in ways that I really only understand as an adult. I wanted products and food based on the cues I got from advertisements and clever packaging. The sad thing is, many of the tricks still work on me as an adult. It’s a constant psychological battle – a fight between the reality of our own hopes and dreams versus the reality that we’re being sold.

Let’s dig in.

Same Trick, Different Pony
On page 44, Schor writes:

In contemporary marketing, the naturalization of consumer desires has been codified into a set of timeless emotional needs all children are believed to possess. Standard practice consists of matching those universal needs to particular products and advertising messages, in which the role of the ad or product is to satisfy the need. Kids need to be scared to help them overcome their fears, so make a scary movie. Kids need to belong, so suggest that if they buy brand X, they’ll have friends.

That last sentence reminded me of the huge advertising push for the BK Kids’ Club when I was a young lad. Looking back on it, it was pretty clear that those ads were selling me on the idea that if I went to Burger King, I’d have friends via the BK Kids’ Club. Saying that as an adult is patently silly, but it worked like a charm on a lonely ten year old boy. I hinted about going to Burger King regularly and built it up to a big event in my mind when we would go.

The funny thing is, advertisements work the same way on adults, just using different techniques. Car commercials show some attractive individual driving a car (like a current one in which a woman of apparently Brazilian descent purrs about being a “new kind of woman” who needs a “new kind of car”) and thus subtly hints that this is the car that the beautiful people drive. Humor is used in a similar fashion – we laugh and get positive feelings towards the product.

This is part of the bargain when watching television – or exposing yourself to any media. The difference between adults and kids, though, is that many adults have the tools to realize this manipulation. Do my kids? I don’t think so, but I want to teach them the skills before they fall into the traps – that means watching some television with them, but keeping the amount pretty small.

The Costs of Being Cool
Schor, on page 47, states:

In a recent survey of 4,002 kids in grades 4 through 8, 66 percent reported that cool defines them. [...] although cool is hard to pin down, in practice it centers on recurring themes, and these themes are relentlessly pushed by marketers in their conception and design of products [...] One theme is that cool is socially exclusive, that is, expensive.

In 1997, the younger sister of one of my friends wanted a Tickle Me Elmo for Christmas. 1997 was the year where the toy went bonkers in popularity, triggering parents to actively seek out this toy – and often go too far doing it. I was part of a melee in Des Moines attempting to get one. Part of the desirability of this toy was the fact that it was exclusive. They were hard to get, and having one was a symbol that a child could show off to prove their “coolness” (as much as it applied to that age range).

This desire of “coolness” is something that’s pretty hard for parents to avoid. I know – I was something of a social outcast in my school days and I really don’t want my children to have some of the low points of that experience. It’s truly not fun to be picked last every time at soccer or to be ridiculed for something completely out of your control.

Marketers know this, and they sell to this. That’s why the most successful toys market – at least in part – to parents as well. They sell parents on the idea that just this one little purchase will go a long way towards putting an aura of “cool” on their child in their peer group.

That’s a powerful weapon, and frankly, as a parent, I’m searching for ways to combat it. It’s easy to talk big now and say how I’ll never give into such crass marketing. It’s entirely another to see my child come in the door in tears because he was picked on at school, and then to observe that the trendiest item for a child that age is something I could easily acquire, something that could wipe those tears away and make the social ladder something bearable again.

I’m not battling the expectations of my own children – I’m battling the expectations of peers. Anyone got any battle tactics?

The next discussion, coming in two days, will cover the next portion of the third chapter of Born to Buy, starting at the subheading “Kids Rule: Nickelodeon and the Anti-Adult Bias” on page 51 through the subheading “Pester Power” on page 61.

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40 thoughts on “Born to Buy: From Tony the Tiger to Slime Time Live

  1. Michael says:

    Yes, get yourself a classical education.

  2. !wanda says:

    I was picked on a lot in elementary school, and I don’t think that anything I could have bought would have changed that. There were deeper personality issues going on that caused my exclusion. While your kid is probably not going to understand that product X is not going to make them cool and popular, you can, and you can refuse to buy them things. If your kids don’t hate you some of the time, you’re doing something wrong.

  3. Andy says:

    I never considered the idea of marketing to parents on the idea that the product will make their kids popular/cool. It is pretty brilliant. I’m sure there are many parents living vicariously through their kids, so if the kids are cool, then the parents are too.

  4. Jesse says:

    This is something I struggled with just with my little sisters. I wanted to get them MP3 players for Christmas, and I wanted to get them iPods: I know that they didn’t NEED ipods but I know they are the “cool” thing and I never had the really cool things growing up – not because my parents didnt want to get me things but because we couldn’t afford them – and I CAN afford to buy them iPods. Its an interesting conundrum – obviously children should learn that they don’t need the “cool” stuff, but having been there myself, I wish I would have at least occaisonally.

  5. Looby says:

    I agree with !wanda, I know I went through a period when I didn’t fit in and remember coming home in tears on more than one occasion. My parents would never have bought me something to help me try and fit in. I remember at least one occasion when my mum would point out that if it was only my clothes that people liked me for they weren’t worth it. There were times that helped and times when I would say “you just don’t get it” but she did and I think it helped me overall.
    But I’m sure it was hard for her to watch me be miserable, if only for a time.

  6. tightwadfan says:

    There were a couple of rich kids in my school who bought the all cool stuff and still weren’t popular. When they came in with the latest fad item they would get some attention for a few days but it never lasted. I think they came off as trying too hard. Two of the most popular girls had little money and none of the trendy stuff. They were just really fun and creative girls.

    I think fitting in comes down to self-confidence and like others have noted, there is usually nothing you can buy your kids that will help.

  7. Vered says:

    I’m looking for a balance. I don’t buy everything my kids ask me to buy them, and certainly not the most expensive stuff. We do have discussions on how advertisers are trying to lure us into buying things that we don’t really need.

    But I am trying to buy them just enough so that they don’t stand out as having “nothing”. So, if the “cool”, trendy kids wear Juicy Couture, and at the other end of the spectrum there are non-label, non-designer clothes, perhaps a good compromise is Gap – especially when on sale.

  8. Jesse says:

    Vered I like that premise: a little here a little there. I don’t see it as “giving in” any more than buying a nice house “giving in” vs just renting a tiny shack.

  9. Becky says:

    I was a moderate-income kid in a school full of “rich” kids (whose parents were doctors, lawyers, etc). It may be different in other environments, but my experience was that expensive possessions and whether one’s mom drove a Mercedes or a secondhand Ford did not affect my classmates’ social status. And this was not a progressive, Quaker-type school where you’d expect the parents and teachers to encourage that attitude. This was a standard, upwardly-mobile private prep school.

    As a kid, I thought that maybe if I lived in a “better” neighborhood, had designer clothes, and went on the school-sponsored ski trips, I too would be popular.

    But my best friend *did* have all that stuff, and she got bullied more than I did. Whereas, as others have pointed out, some kids who were obviously on scholarship, and had none of the trendy objects, were very well-liked.

    From another perspective, my husband grew up poor, and wore clothing ten years out of date from the Goodwill near his rural small town. He remembers being utterly mortified about it. On the other hand, he had an undiagnosed neurological condition that resulted in terrible social skills. His brother was just as poor, but he had great social skills and was able to put those to use making sure that he “fit in” materially as well as socially.

    As a non-parent, I think trendy, expensive doodads are a red herring. Still, the first-impression rules that apply to adults also apply to kids. Make sure they have reasonably stylish haircuts and clothing so they don’t stand out to an adult’s eye as “weird” (unless they want to). If they still have social problems, they have a *skill* problem, not a *shopping* problem.

  10. Michelle says:

    I grew up relatively poor. We never needed anything, but never had the “cool” stuff either. My mom was really good about showing me that there was so much more in the world than what I could see in my peers. We checked out library books on fashion, and I would read magazines, then we would go to the Goodwill and find things that I liked, or just neat fabrics and I would make my own clothes and outfits. Was I popular? No, and I did get picked on, but I had a few good friends and a lot of self-confidence. That came from good parents who loved me and taught me that I am an individual and that I need to be comfortable in my own skin, and if I’m not, then no clothes or gadgets will change that.

    Practically, I think the biggest thing is to reduce the impact of marketing in your own life. I really believe that our kids turn into mintuatures of ourselves, no matter what we say to them. The second, is to broaden their horizons. The library is a great way to do that, we couldn’t afford TV, so all I had were books. Books, music, art, theatre, sports, whatever. Anything that keeps them out of the mall. And the third is to have a strong family. It was really easy for me to be a noncomformist (which is what happens when you try and reject marketing) because I knew that my strength wasn’t coming from my friends. The approval of everyone else didn’t matter so much because I had a soft place to fall in my family.

    I’m 25, I graduated HS in 2001, so I feel like I’m far enough away to have a little perspective, but still close enough to really remember what it was really like. And yes, a family can do this in the 21st century, my parents did.

  11. J.Kru says:

    I have to agree with Michael (#1), in the sense you don’t have any hope apart from a community of people with the same values.

  12. junk mail man says:

    I think !wanda has it right. What marketers want children to exploit is parental confusion. “Should I help my kid be cool in this instance by making a purchase? And if yes, when should I refuse?” You sound confused, Trent, and you need to identify what your principles are.

    If one of your principles is that children should not be subjected to being picked last in soccer, you’ll be buying a lot of expensive cleats (unless they are naturally gifted or something). What you’re doing then is reinforcing the idea that self-worth is tied to possessions. It seems you do have that notion, to some extent, when it comes to your children.

    Shouldn’t you be considering ways to help your kids see through that lie, rather than trying figure out when kowtowing to the lie is permissible?

    I hate to critique you on this because I agree with so much of what you write. But you shouldn’t let your negative feelings about your own childhood defeat your better instincts, which probably tell you that the consumer marketplace will place enough pressures on your kids, and it’s your job to minimize those pressures by shedding the light of disdain on the whole shakedown scheme.

    I’m not saying never buy things for your kids. But I am saying you cannot entertain those thoughts that insist that your children, deprived of certain “cool” material goods, will be disadvantaged in life. Sure they may FEEL disadvantaged as you did, but consider the alternative. An illusory self-worth based on material possessions is far worse than a solid sense of self that is nurtured by you irrespective of “coolness.”

  13. Izabelle says:

    As I was regularly picked on as a kid (and there was a whole lot of that going on then), I got to learn one valuable lesson much too late:

    The whole “get stuff to be cool” agenda is a form of bullying, and should be exposed as such.

    Many comments above highlight this: the rich kids with all the gadgets with none more friends, and the fun and creative girls having friends without having the material stuff themselves. It took me forever to figure it out, but I know that someone who rejects you because you do not have the ‘in” gear will disrespect you just as much if you get the said gear to be cool. That is because buying things to fit in is a form of submission. This does not only apply to material possessions or to children; if you bend to people’s expectations without respecting your own values, how can you expect respect from others?

    This bit of truth is what I will work hard at teaching my (future) children.

  14. Jillian says:

    I am in that probably quite narrow age bracket where school is ancient history but my peers are still young enough that they’re all on Facebook. And this is what I’ve been learning from the experience:

    1) Nobody remembers school. Most people can’t even remember who they were friends with, unless they were good friends. Unless a person really stood out for being weird or popular, they are just part of a nebulous cloud of “people I used to see on a daily basis 15 years ago”.

    2) The people who were attractive and/or popular back at school are usually the ones who have nothing to talk about except the last party they went to. They’ve spent their years relying on their looks to get them by and don’t have much to show for it.

    3) The quiet, studious ones are the most successful and interesting, and most surprisingly, have surpassed the group above in the attractiveness stakes. I guess they were good looking all along but nobody noticed.

    4) The geeks are inheriting the earth. Those that didn’t get picked for the football team are now on the cutting edge of science and technology at a time when it matters and all the sporty types are starting to feel their age.

    5) The partially blind, mostly deaf social outcast with the overbite and the speech impediment is now one of the hottest people on my friends list. She’s had laser eye surgery, got smaller hearing aids, and had her teeth corrected and now even her weird sense of fashion can only be considered ‘funky’ – in a good way. (Don’t know about the speech impediment, but I suspect that improved with the teeth…)

    Of course there are exceptions, but the bottom line is, no matter how bad you get picked on at school, it gets better. And if you buy your kid stuff to help make him ‘cool’ at school age, not only are you giving him the message that his personality requires augmentation to measure up, you’re also likely trading away his future ‘coolness’…

  15. Trent says:

    “You sound confused, Trent, and you need to identify what your principles are.”

    I know quite well what my principles are, but I have yet to face a child coming home crying because they were picked last in soccer. I know that feeling, and I know quite well it’s going to kick me in the gut when I hear it in my child’s cries.

  16. Todd says:

    Just two things this brings to mind:
    1) Jillian’s point (1) is so hard to realize during school, but, so obvious 10 years out of school; it doesn’t matter, because (after school’s over) you’ll have a new life that likely won’t involve ANYONE you spent so much time thinking about.
    and
    2) I believe the foundation of a child’s self-worth,self-esteem, and contentedness needs to be centered around the family and the values/relationships built there. Simple friendships are fleeting in most cases, so, kids need to have more than that to rely on in the tough times.

  17. Gena says:

    Trent, as the parent of two boys (8 and 11), I can understand your concern for your child’s feelings. That said, I’m noticing a theme and that is that there seems to be an expectation that a) your child will be picked last because you were and b) that he’s going to be heartbroken by it, also because (to some extent) you were. As a parent, I think it’s very important that we remember that our children will have some experiences much like ours, and many experiences that are very different from ours.

    My husband was raised in the projects and was picked on daily by a gang of kids. His greatest fear when our oldest started school was that he would be picked on. What my husband forgot was that he lived in a rough neighborhood; that he was raised by a single mom who wasn’t around much; that he lived in poverty; and that his father had abandoned him and his sister. Our boys’ experience is 180 degrees from his–two attentive parents, a safe community, economic stability. These factors coupled with the fact that they’re different people living in a different time guarantee that their experience will be very different.

    Yes, there will be times when your kids come home crying. That’s part of being a kid and in truth, trying to shelter them from that does them a huge disservice. Teaching them how to deal with disappointment is a necessary lesson that will get played out numerous times as they grow. Part of parenting is sometimes dealing with that kicked-in-the-gut feeling. It’s also very important to remember that your kids will have their own wounds and battle scars to deal with and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

  18. mia says:

    you know, kids get hurt. its a fact of life. i got teased for so many things: being non religious, being from a liberal, hippyish, wrong side of the tracks household. having red hair. being tall. being poor. having an opinion.

    and you know what? it hurt, but it also forced me to see myself as separate, an individual. and its my individuality which now draws people to me. thank god for it – i really feel for kids who spend their lives being pushed into boxes so that they are ‘acceptable’. a lot of those kids end up going batshit crazy when they are older, because they never had to look into themselves and find out what truly defines them. i say, get the hard stuff out the way younger: let your kids be defined on their own terms now, when they are still little enough to leave it behind. it will be the best thing in the world for them later on.

  19. Optimus says:

    Trent,

    No offense intended, but…

    I’ve been a big fan of your blog for some time now, but lately it seems I’m picking up on a defensive “I have to be right” streak coming from you. You’ve been offered tremendous advice in your comments section, but oftentimes lately you don’t seem to want to step back and think about what’s being said or admit the possibility of a mistake in your thoughts or reactionary feelings.

    As per previous comments on this post, if you let possessions help define your child’s ability to make friends, then you’re only curtailing his inner growth and setting a life-long association in his mind. An association he’ll live with for the rest of his life, unless he becomes consciously aware of it later (which he’ll then have to go through the process of overcoming, a potentially life-long struggle).

    A secure child that has self confidence in himself and his abilities naturally attracts people to him. Insecure, “timid”, anxious children tend to be the ones preyed on most by bullies. There are many ways to instill more inner confidence in your child; buying things is not one of them.

  20. Dawn says:

    First and foremost, if you raise your child to be independent and comfortable in their own skin, that will go a long way. My daughters are 12 and 16. They are still materialistic in many ways, but you can tell the difference between how they deal with their father and how they deal with me. They know that I love them and I empathize completely with the problems that they do run into, but they also know that I’m not going to run in and fix, buy, pay, or rescue them from everything.

    I shop for their clothes secondhand. There is an excellent consignment shop right down the street from me. The shop is so nice, they do not mind knowing that they are secondhand clothes and I can get them brand-name jeans for $5! They clean out their clothes a couple of times a year and bring them out to the shop. I set it up so that they may access the money on the account even if I am not there, since they often will walk up there when I am at work. My mother sometimes stops in and puts money on account for them too.

    If they want a certain brand of shoes or something, they have to save their money because I refuse to pay $80 for something they will wear for less than a year until the next cool pair of shoes comes out. Incidentally, when my daughter got her own cool shoes, she wore them for two years.

    I pay for once in a lifetime things no questions asked, like when my daughter’s choir went to Chicago. Those things come up so quick the kids don’t have time to budget and save for them properly. And at Christmas, they get cool things. They got iPods one year, but that is ALL they got from me.

    You of all people should know that it is important to teach your child the value of a dollar. But what is more important is that they know that they are loved and that they can solve their own problems. You should look up the Love and Logic books sometime, since you like to read. I know it has helped me stay sane even with a teenager and a preteen.

  21. Vanessa says:

    it comes down to this… and the earlier one gets this the better. Life is hard. The most valuable lessons we all need to learn are going to be hard to learn. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.

    (can’t remember where I heard this but its so true)

  22. Ashley says:

    I was the almost-cool high-schooler who lamented not having expensive sneakers or my own car the day I turned 16, and I survived relatively unscathed. Now as an adult, I still don’t drive the newest car, or have a new suit for every meeting. I’m old enough to understand that it is a choice at this point.

    My parents taught by example. They chose to save their money, drive older cars, not buy us everything we could fathom. And now, as a result of their reasonable lifestyle, my parents will get to retire in style in the near future.

    It is important to teach the benefit of saving, and to plan shopping trips to buy reasonably priced/on sale, *appropriate*, and higher-quality clothes. Exemplify the benefit of buying nice things for great prices. Teach them to care for their belongings so they last longer. Trendy, poorly-made clothes that fall apart after a wash aren’t an investment like a favorite pair of jeans, or a well-made (on sale) suit can be.

    Also, shopping for clothes is an opportunity to teach children morals and personal presentation standards. If we allow our 5-year-old to run around in a micro-mini skirt and tube top, I have to consider that she might not look as cute in 10 years when I am no longer exclusively in charge of her shopping habits.

    Children understand early that they are judged by what they wear. Since this isn’t going to change, teach them to present themselves well from their earliest years. Appropriate hygiene, grooming, and general (classy) appearance are far more important than the brand of t-shirt he or she is wearing. It will pay off when they know how to look for an interview, or other formal occasion.

  23. getagrip says:

    I grew up in a lower social class, with foreign parents who didn’t speak English at home and caused me to be in speech therapy until fourth grade. Overweight, wearing twice used hand me downs, and being socially inept didn’t help either. Yet I don’t remember excessive teasing (there’s always some amount). I do recall plenty of struggles with my parents on certain clothes/shoe purchases, but in the end I wore what they bought. On the other hand I often thought it would be cool to own certain toys or have certain things. The trick my parents used was simple, let me decide on perhaps one thing I really wanted, and then get that. Even as a child you quickly learn what’s worth getting and to be careful what you ask for, especially when you turn around and ask for the next new thing and you’re simply pointed to the thing you had wanted so badly but is now sitting in a corner because it failed to live up to expectations.

    I will also agree with others in the general theme that providing a secure, safe, and caring home environment will give your kids the strength to shrug off the bulk of the teasing. Teasing only really works when the person you’re teasing is bothered by it. Give them the tools and guidance to deal with their own struggles, and give them a chance to deal with it on their own before stepping in.

    With my own kids, we’ve tried to be careful in what they have and get. The biggest problem is overzealous grandparents and uncles. It’s taken many years to drill into their heads that they must check with us first on any purchase they plan for our kids. Frankly my MIL didn’t get it until one Christmas my then four year chucked a newly received Christmas present across the living room and in front of my MIL. “Be careful or you’ll break it!” my wife said. “I don’t care if it breaks,” my four year old said. “Grandma will just buy me another one.”

    We’ve also taken to encouraging the kids to donate toys or clothes they don’t really want or use anymore. It helps to reinforce that their items are just things and if the things aren’t bringing them value, they can be given to others who need them. Besides, it really helps to hold down their stuff in their rooms.

  24. Sandy says:

    As a parent of 2 girls, age 14 and 9, I see a huge difference between my 2. I’ve been trying to guage why they are so different, and I think that the change of income and TV have a lot to do with it.
    When my older daughter was small, we couldn’t (or rather, chose not to)afford cable TV. She watched primarily PBS, which has minimal advertising. By the time child #2 came along, my husband had a huge income change, and we chose to purchase cable. I made every effort to keep PBS the primary station, but there were so many other options, that she watched alot of other shows.
    As it happens, my older daughter could care less about TV, enjoying just a few select shows. My younger daughter almost feels as if I am piercing her heart by limiting her TV time.
    Maybe it is just the difference in personality, but the influences that my younger one got were much more consumer oriented than the older one.
    Right now, something to be aware of is the children’s computer game Webkins. My (younger) one could sit there all day and buy things for her Webkins and since there are so many of them (she has friends with more than 30 Webkins!)that she could buy (she has 3…1 that she got for Christmas, 2 she bought with her own money)and the more the better!!!And they are only “good” online for 1 year! I beleive that this feeds into the consumer idea you brought up…a sense of belonging to something. She feels that she belongs to the Webkins world! It drives me crazy!
    Meanwhile…it is a good discipline tool…when she doesn’t do her (homework, violin practice, pet care, chores, etc…) before going online, it’s an immediate 3 day hiatus from screen time (all TV and Computer).
    One other thing…Trent, since your children are very small yet…everything that you do with them at this stage, and for years to come, the first time you do it, it’s precedent setting. After that first ice cream…there’s no going back, after the first purchase of something non necessary for them, the expectation will be there to purchase that…..every time they ask or see that item. And you will have to decide…yes or no, and if it’s no…you may have some unhappy campers on your hands! I always tried to think out whenever a new item or experience came our way how it would affect our life. My daughter knows that any further Webkins need to come from her own pocket. Some choices can end up being very expensive, unless you as the parent can say no.

  25. Christina says:

    Getting that desired item is not only a status symbol of coolness for the children, but how a child views a parents love for them. How far will they go to get me this toy? If they love me, they will stand in line for hours, pay a million dollars for Hannah Montana tickets, get in a fight for it, steal it if they have to. That expecation of people can carry over into relationships later on if parents always do these things. One way to battle that might be to teach them to save for such things from the minute they can count. I got an allowance for doing chores. I remeber the day I open my savings account at the bank. I was 5! My parents said, for every penny you save from the money you earn from chores we will match. Then I could buy whatever I wanted when the time came. So, if I wanted to buy “coolness” I had to work for it! I learned that from day one and in a completely loving manner! Now at 31, even though I could buy “coolness” with the salary I earn, I still choose to save (and my company matches it) and I spend wisely knowing that money runs out and it doesn’t grow on trees! It grows in investments! =)

  26. Lauren says:

    In Trent’s defense, maybe people should take his comments for what they are:

    1) the soccer comment as a general example of a situation where his son could feel social rejection, not that Trent thinks that his son will have the same experiences that he will, and

    2) that sometimes Trent makes controversial comments to generate conversation. This tool is especially effective if he speaks in the first person.

    Conversation and disagreement is welcome, but stop the personal attacks, please!

  27. Fran says:

    I agree with Izabelle and Michelle. I don’t have kids, but I am the un-cool aunt. The most hip and trendy thing I ever bought the niece and nephew was a set of Harry Potter books.

  28. Marie says:

    I recently quit my very demanding career to homeschool my 6th grade son. He is THRIILED! We spent about 3 months discussing the concept of “more money or more mom” when he wanted something. Now it never comes up. There is a wonderful PBS consummer education website for kids and I highly recommend it to everyone. Kids can be very savvy, remember you can’t kid a kid. You are right to keep them away from the tv as much as possible. There are so many more delicious things to do in life!

  29. Daniel says:

    First, I want to thank you – this article sparked an idea for a blog entry on “cool”.

    Trent, let your children face their own challenges. When I was in elementary school, indeed, the entire time I was in school, my family moved every 18 to 24 months. There was nothing anyone could buy for me that would wipe that “new kid” stench away. Instead, I had to face my own challenges, and find other ways to tap into my “inner coolness”. Inner cool is the only genuine cool there is.

    I’ll go more in depth when I post the article here in a few days, but above is the nutshell version of my advice.

  30. Kristina says:

    Lauren, I think that you make some very good points. The way I read the post, the soccer story was simply an example. I also can understand why Trent worries about the day when his children come home because they were being picked on. I know for me that the worry is not just that my children will be hurt by the actions of others. It’s also the worry that I will not handle the situation appropriately. Will I be able to use the situation to teach my children positive life lessons like worrying less about what others think or will I cave into my desire to protect my children by buying them whatever item promises to make them “cool” this week?

    As a high school teacher, I believe that I have a unique perspective on what makes a student “cool” since I can watch the way students interact with each other without having to interact with them myself. (Students frequently don’t have this option.)

    Here are some of the trends I’ve noticed among my students:

    1. Self-confidence plays a huge role in “coolness.” You are much more likely to be cool if you feel positively about yourself. Not all self-confident students are cool but the ones who aren’t cool really don’t care.

    2. “Cool” is relative. Athletically minded students tend to think that their peers with athletic talent are cool. Creative students tend to think that students with artistic talent are cool.

    3. Even if there is someone who thinks that you are cool, there is always someone else who thinks that you are not cool.

    4. Students who look dirty (unwashed or matted hair, body odor, bad breath, clothes that are dirty, have holes, or do not fit) are almost always not cool. The only exceptions to this that I see are the “rebels” who enjoy going against popular culture. (I’m not saying that “rebels” are bad kids. They usually very sweet and have an interesting sense of humor. They just enjoy being different.)

    Please keep in mind that these are just trends that I have noticed and they don’t apply to every situation.

    In my opinion, parents can cut down on the amount of teasing, bullying, and rejection their kids will have to deal with by doing two things. First, do all you can to help your child become self-confident. Not the kind of self-confident that comes from buying the latest whatever but the kind that comes from within. Encourage them to develop whatever talents they possess. Every child has some talent. Help them to identify what theirs is.

    Second, teach your children how to present themselves. Keeping themselves clean and presentable not only makes others more likely to enjoy their company, it can also help them to develop that sense of self-confidence that is so important. I’m not saying that students must wear the latest, trendiest clothes, shoes, hair styles, and etc. Nice, high quality clothes can be bought at goodwill. Clean, healthy hair does not need to be expensively styled and a bar of soap and deodorant is all that it takes to keep body odor away.

    Every child will be teased or bullied at some point. Our job as parents is helping them to deal with it in a positive manner.

  31. Trent says:

    “I know for me that the worry is not just that my children will be hurt by the actions of others. It’s also the worry that I will not handle the situation appropriately. Will I be able to use the situation to teach my children positive life lessons like worrying less about what others think or will I cave into my desire to protect my children by buying them whatever item promises to make them “cool” this week?”

    This is exactly how I feel. Wonderfully said, Kristina.

  32. goldsmith says:

    I grew up as the only child of a widowed mother, and attended a grammar school where I mixed with children of doctors, lawyers, diplomats, the like. I was picked last for every team but that was because I was non-athletic (still am). I do not remember being picked on otherwise, but still, I was *very* attuned to what was an acceptable clothing style. My mother and I went by compromise – she never gave in and bought me cool consumer items, but I was permitted to veto the truly uncool stuff. In fact, I was *asked* to give my input and opinion in these matters.

    That participation in decision-making helped a *lot*. It removed the feeling of having stuff foisted on me, and being the victim of parental stubbornness. Maybe kids take that victim-think straight into school with them?

    My mother’s second strategy was to tell me that it is the hallmark of the truly cool to not be much influenced by consumerism.

    Her third strategy was to let me choose after-school activities that set me apart (in an envied-by-your classmates way). I got private art lessons, and also studied piano. Now everyone could do band, but few kids had a piano at home, so let me tell you, it worked in terms of enhancing me standing among my classmates.

    Your children may not wish to study piano, and buying a piano may strike you as an expensive trade-off – that said, they have great resale value (which you cannot say about most fashionable doodads) – and the general point is to pick activities that your kids love. Pursuing them will develop them as people and balance the pressures of consumerism, even if the initial outlay is expensive.

    Hope these ideas are somewhat helpful.

  33. Fuji says:

    Kids learn by example, practice what you preach. If your priorities are designer clothes and luxury cars, expect your children to have the same taste.
    The best defense is a good offense – emphasize critical thinking skills.

  34. DivaJean says:

    Regardless of what group a kid falls into (my 80′s mind automatically goes to “nerd, sporto, freak, popular kid, and troublemaker”- too many John Hughes movies!lol), there will be status items within that subculture.

    Jocks might think a certain baseball mitt, running shoe, or whatever- is the holy grail.

    Nerds might want the penultimate computer.

    Popular girls might want the latest designer whatever.

    And so on.

    I have to agree with others who advise the main thing that our kids need to walk away with is that things are fleeting- it is their inner truth and self that matters. That is the ultimate cool- knowing who they are as a person and not being afraid of it.

  35. Lesleyann says:

    My son is almost 3, and has had one instance of social exclusion that I know of. It did break my heart, he was so sad, there was really nothing I could do to make it better. In this case it was with some slightly older neighbor kids, who are allowed to watch Power Rangers, and one day didn’t want to play with him b/c he didn’t know how to “play Power Rangers.” It was just a one-time thing, he still plays with these neighbors. But I know it could happen again, and we are still not watching Power Rangers… he is too young, and aggressive enough as it is.
    I identify a lot with “parent of heart-broken kid,” where if I did something I think is bad for him, it would keep him from being heart-broken. It is hard… but I think it is getting a little easier… I felt horrible a few months ago, to not let him play on a near-by trampoline, but now I am used to causing him sadness in that way.

  36. Yep.
    Homeschool.
    And no TV.

    Works like a charm. My 4 never ask me for name brand anything… not even sugary cereal, ever!

  37. Lenore says:

    Why buy trendy toys? It’s cheaper to give kids cash and teach them to bribe bullies or popular kids who don’t like them. Might as well get them used to buying friendships so they’ll be ready to pay fraternity and sorority dues in college and country club memberships as adults.

  38. junk mail man says:

    Lenore, hilarious.

    Trent, I didn’t mean to say that I don’t think you have any principles about child-raising. Obviously that’s not true, and often what you write here helps me to think about how to raise my young son.

    I just meant to say, in a nutshell, that it’s not about you! Your bad feelings 25 years ago (which sound pretty minor anyway) and your bad feelings when the kid feels left out aren’t going to help your kid learn what’s important and what’s not. By entertaining those feelings to the extent you seem to, you’ll only burnish the shiny consumer product objects of your kids’ irrational desires. There’s no there there…why make a dilemma out of all this? One reaction is good for the kid (not buying crap to salve wounds and using painful moments to instruct) and one reaction is bad (doing the opposite for whatever emotional reason).

    Is all I’m sayin.

  39. Katie says:

    Hey Trent,

    I have 2 boys, age 13 and 10, who don’t have all the coolest shoes/toys/gadgets. When they are sad because someone else has something they wish they had we talk about what else is contributing to the feeling and also about the kids who have the desired item. Do they feel they can’t run as fast as they would with the cool shoes? Maybe but maybe they can still outrace the kid who has them. Would they be the coolest kid in school if they had the gadget? No, the kid who has it is kind of a jerk much of the time. It doesn’t always succeed in making them feel better, but it opens discussions of the value of stuff. Good luck!

  40. mariah says:

    My mother accidently instilled mistrust of sales/advertising in me in two ways. One was she would give me a dime (circa 1963) for every salesman I got rid of at our front door. So, I learned to say NO to them early. Plus, as a natural skeptic my mom pointed out the flaws in products and advertising.

    When I was bringing up my own daughters I used commercials as time to pick apart advertising schemes. I did my best to quietly instill a wariness of advertisments and ocmpanies. Those folks don’t care one bit about anything beyond the success of their sales of products. I got them to critique commercial as to how they manipulated the audience. It did seems to help them not to be clueless as to the real agenda of TV sponsors. Now if I’d only been as successful in dealing with peer pressure to have the popular and cool items!

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