Clothing Makes the Adolescent

July 19, 2009

3 min read


Do not minimize the importance of clothing to your teenage children.

I received a call from a hysterical mother last Sunday morning. "I have purchased a closet full of clothes for my teenage daughters and all they say is, ‘I've got nothing to wear!' I'm so frustrated!"

I tried to maintain a sympathetic tone but I couldn't help smiling. It was such a typical adolescent reaction, one I'd heard so many times before from my own children and those of my friends. (Perhaps I've even said it myself!)

Kids who proudly proclaim their non-conformity insist on wearing the same styles as everyone else.

I don't know if clothes make the man but they certainly seem to make the adolescent. And in what seems to be the ultimate irony, kids who proudly proclaim their non-conformity insist on wearing the same styles as everyone else. They would be mortified to be seen in something different.

As parents, we should not minimize the importance of clothing to our teenage children, girls and boys -- no matter how silly or annoying it seems to us. While there must certainly be budgetary considerations, this is NOT the time to try to sell them on the merits of the non-material life. They're not buying. Well actually, that's exactly what they are doing.

Of course we shouldn't indulge our teenagers' every whim and desire, but we need to be sensitive to the meaning of clothing to them, and the "right" clothing at that. It's too easy to be dismissive. And too destructive.

We all have a list of shoulds and shouldn'ts in our head. They shouldn't care so much about material possessions. Their self-esteem shouldn't be dependent on or connected to their dress. They shouldn't care what their friends think.

But they do and it is. And being out of step with their friends is anything but irrelevant to them.

Our teenagers want to look "good" and we should try to help facilitate this, especially if they want to dress in a dignified way.

To counter their insatiable cravings, it may be helpful to give them an actual budget, a certain amount of money over a certain timeframe. Anything over and above is their responsibility. It will help give them perspective. It will empower them and force them to make real-life decisions. Some items of clothing will actually become less important to them when they do their cost-benefit analysis. And, best of all, if they have "nothing to wear," you won't be to blame.

It would be nice if our adolescents were only focused on spiritual pursuits (Peace between Israel and the Arabs would be nice too!) but we need to be realistic. This is a time in their lives when how they look is directly connected to their sense of self-worth (unlike their evolved parents for whom it is irrelevant!) and we need to be sensitive to and accommodate this need -- within reason.

My goal is just to avoid accompanying them on their endless shopping trips and to smile with approval as they try on each new (black) sweater, (black) skirt, or (black) loafers.

You can still gently emphasize the spiritual but be empathic to their material needs. Remember, you were young once too. (And, by the way, how many sweaters are in your closet?)

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