As a kid, one of my favorite things about the new school year was back to school shopping. I loved picking out new pencils, crayons, paper, markers and other supplies. Shopping for new clothes was even more enjoyable. I went to parochial school until the sixth grade, so before middle school I was focused on new shoes, socks, and a couple pairs of pants and shirts for “gym day.” Even though my selection was limited, I still delighted in getting new things. I transferred to public school in the seventh grade, which meant no more uniforms. It was a bit of a culture shock, actually, because other than the kids I played with in the neighborhood, I didn’t have much interaction with kids who didn’t also wear uniforms. I had no idea what the “in” style was. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even realize there was an “in” style (this was before MTV and social media). My clothing choices were usually t-shirts and jeans. Truth be told, other than a time in the late 80’s when I flirted a bit with fashion, my style hasn’t really changed much from that. Sad to say, but it’s true.
Back to school shopping for my kids has been a whole different story. Both of my kids have been very particular about the clothes they wear, even at a young age. While I may have been able to get away with buying their clothes with little input when they were 5 or 6, the game changed completely when they got to be about 8 or 9. Then they wanted clothes in which they could make a statement, whether that statement was, “look at me; I look like everyone else” or “look at me; I’m an individual.” As they got older, their clothes got way more expensive too: jeans in the $40-$50 range, shirts about the same, shoes near $100. As a single parent, I had to put some serious limits in place or else I’d go broke from buying these clothes.
I’ve talked with many parents through 1-on-1 Coaching who find themselves in similar situations with their kids. I also frequently overhear the interactions of other parents and their kids when I’m out with my daughter. The conversations often go something like this:
“But, mom, I have to have this shirt.”
“It looks like three other shirts you already have. And, it’s $50”
“No, it doesn’t. This one has shorter sleeves. And, what difference does it make what it costs? I have to have this shirt or everyone will think I’m lame.”
The voices tend to rise towards the end of the exchange. Sometimes you’ll hear snippets of, “I hate you! You are ruining my life!” or “You are so unfair!” said just loud enough for the people nearby to hear. The parent may feel put on the spot, which is the probably the intent. Perhaps there’s an internal dialogue going on as well, where the parent questions if she is being unfair, or wonders if her child may actually be left out because she doesn’t have the right clothes. We all want the best for our children and part of “the best” is “fitting in” and being liked by their peers.
It seems as though the kids today want everything, and more of it. They want what everyone in their social group has and what they see on TV and social media, whether it’s the latest clothing, shoes, cell phone or other tech gadget. Forget keeping up with the Joneses. For today’s kids, it’s keeping up with the Kardashians—and they have a heck of a lot more money than the Joneses ever had. So, what is a parent to do in this age of excess and entitlement?
First and foremost, set some limits around what you will and won’t pay for, regardless of how old your child is. When my kids were around the age of 9, I started setting a back to school budget. I would purchase whatever school supplies they needed and they had a specific amount of money they could spend. I gave them as much free rein as possible on what they bought for back to school clothes. If they wanted to blow their entire budget on a pair of shoes, a pair of jeans, and a shirt, they were welcome to. Once the money was spent, though, there would be no more money for clothes coming from me until Christmas. There were a couple of times when they did just that and blew their entire clothing budget on a few expensive items. On those occasions, they did try to renegotiate the terms, promising that if I would buy them just a couple more items, I could take it out of their allowance or it could be a future birthday present, or they would do extra chores to pay me back. Take it from me: paying it forward in this way is not advisable. Once the item is purchased, all promises tend to be forgotten. I know this from personal experience.
Understand, your kids ARE going to push back against these limits so don’t be surprised by that. You may hear you are ruining their life, how much they hate you, or what an awful parent you are. You are not an awful parent, nor are you ruining their life because you set limits and don’t buy them the newest thing they want. Expect to feel a little guilty, like you’re not providing enough for your kids. We all have these moments and they pass. Sticking to the limits you set is going to do way more for your kids than the $50 shirt, the $150 boots, or the newest cell phone ever will.
My kids are now older. My son is 19 and my daughter will be 18 in December. This will be my last year of back to school shopping with my daughter. There’s a bit of wistfulness in that, but I’m still setting a limit on how much I’m willing to spend on back to school clothes—regardless of how melancholy I may feel.
Denise Rowden is a parent of two teens: an 18-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son. She has worked in Special Education, Alternative Education and adolescent group homes. She has a BS in Psychology from the University of Southern Maine and is currently working on her Life Coach certification from the International Coach Federation.