Ages 11–14

Clothes Call: School Shopping for Fashion-Obsessed Tweens

tween style demands for back to school shoppingHappening now in the homes of tweens across our region: Clamoring for chambray shirts ($50 a pop), nagging for Nike Airs ($90), longing for Lululemons ($89 — and this one is nonnegotiable) and ululating for new Ugg boots (the Bailey Bows? To die for, and $205).

It’s enough to knock you off your Louboutins.

At this time of year, tweens and their families are ramping up for back-to-school shopping. Brace yourself for sticker shock: The average family will spend nearly $700 on their K-12 children this year, according to the National Retail Federation. It’s the biggest consumer spending spree outside of Christmas; total back-to-school spending last year was expected to reach $30.3 billion in the U.S.

That’s a whole lot of Lulus, and label-conscious families — especially those with style-conscious moms — will blow right past that figure.

Is all that spending really necessary? What is this fashion obsession really about?

“It’s not really about the clothes,” says Laura Kastner, Ph.D., a Seattle adolescent therapist and noted tween expert (and the co-author, with this writer, of the just-released book Wise-Minded Parenting). “It’s about announcing your membership in the tween ‘tribe.’ Wearing certain clothes that they’ve seen on the covers of magazines and on their heroes (TV, sports and music stars) makes tweens feel like they belong."

Gaining that sense of belonging is critical to social development at this age, and fashionable clothes can be a ticket in, says Kastner. “Since there is no membership test or screening committee for the tween tribe per se, tweens and teens are eager to buy certain clothes to give themselves a sense of inclusion, security and peer acceptance. Show up at school with the right clothes — and bingo! ‘I’ll be OK!’”

Besides, for many kids this age (especially girls), shopping is fun. In a 2010 survey by Varsity Brands and Ketchum Global Research Network, girls ages 13-18 identified shopping as their favorite pastime. And shopping with friends? Even better. An annual report just released by Piper Jaffray finds that friends are the strongest influence over tweens’ fashion purchases — and have been for the survey’s entire 25-year history.

“I like to go to the mall with a few friends,” says 13-year-old Kelly Behrbaum of Mercer Island, Wash., who cites sports as her main hobbies, but enjoys the occasional mall crawl. “We like Forever 21 and Nordstrom. Usually I see trends through my friends, and when I go shopping, I just see what I like.” Does it ever bother her when friends buy the exact same clothing that she buys? “I think it’s fine,” Behrbaum says, “or you could just borrow their clothes.”

Cost plus

Clothes swapping is one way to cope with the high cost of some of the most desired labels; for some families, those labels are just out of reach.

“It is very age appropriate for tweens and teens to want to fit in and look like their peers,” says Dru Klein, a counselor at Islander Middle School on Mercer Island, Wash. “The belief that ‘everyone is looking at me at all times’ contributes to the need to fit in and follow the fashion trends. But it can be a problem when the trend is expensive and a teenager and their family cannot afford the clothes that will help them feel like they fit in.”

Some parents cope with the high cost of shopping by asking kids to chip in on those nice-to-have extras. Behrbaum’s $5-a-week allowance sometimes goes toward clothes, but she says if she’s saving up for something big, her parents will help. Jamie North, a Bellevue, Wash. mother of three tween and teen girls, is a veteran back-to-school shopper with a practical policy: “The girls always contribute toward their purchases,” she says. “And they make wiser choices when they have skin in the game, so to speak.”

Send in the clones

With all of these tweens shopping at all the same stores, buying all of the same outfits, you may wonder about the cost to your child’s individuality. Shouldn’t you encourage your child to buck the trends? “It’s unrealistic to have this as an agenda, especially in middle school, when conformity equals security, group membership and acceptance,” says Kastner. “Individuality will come later, in high school, as they get more comfortable in their own skin.”

That’s something that Behrbaum apparently is already seeing at her middle school. “Some people who are super-popular don’t wear fashionable clothes,” she says. “It’s their personality that really counts.”

Kristen Russell is the Seattle-based co-author, with Laura Kastner, Ph.D., of Wise-Minded Parenting: Seven Essen­tials for Raising Successful Tweens and Teens.


Tips for back-to-school shopping from our experts

Set limits. Give your tween a clear picture of what you are prepared to buy and spend ahead of time, and then stick to it. If there’s an expensive item that she must have, help find a way for her to pay for part of it herself, either with her allowance or by doing extra chores.

Watch out for buyer’s remorse. “If parents overspend, or help their teens overspend (by loaning them money), they should not get mad at the kid,” says Kastner.

Spread your spending out. Remember that you don’t have to buy everything before school starts. In fact, letting kids get a week of classes under their belts allows them to see what others are wearing while there’s still budget left for one more purchase.

Don’t overedit. “Sometimes parents think that their kids are making mistakes with their purchases, thinking the fashions are hideous,” says Kastner. “Go online beforehand and see what is fashionable; it might help you keep your mouth shut more easily.”

But keep it school appropriate. Counselor Dru Klein reminds parents to know where to draw the line when it comes to choosing styles, steering kids away from trends such as low-cut or belly-baring tops, and slogan T’s with profanity or questionable messages: “I think certain trends are not appropriate for this age, and it is difficult as educators to enforce certain dress codes when parents are buying the ‘inappropriate’ clothes for their children.” Your child’s school has a dress code; find it online and use it for backup if needed to make your case.

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