Joe Boxer Meets Sean John

Are we raising brand followers?

Our lives are getting more hectic by the day, and with five kids, mine often reaches tornadic proportions. One afternoon, when the length of my to-do list rivaled that of any take-out menu, I fantasized hurling my Palm Pilot over the nearest cliff. But, the Errand Gods and my OCD quickly shook me to my senses. Besides, for once, I was actually planning to revamp my own wardrobe instead of everyone else’s. (Something about the kids suddenly asking to be dropped off three blocks from school and complete strangers tossing change in my coffee cup raised my suspicions).

As I was pawing through the racks of clothing, I noticed that almost everything had the name of some la-de-da designer. I asked myself, “Why in the heck would I want someone else’s name tattooed across my chest?” I’m not getting one nickel from the advertising budget of a company whose annual sales could support all third world countries for a decade. Disillusioned, I left empty handed in my fraying jeans and yellowing T-shirt.

That afternoon, I rummaged through my children’s drawers and closets and noticed that they, too, had been sucked in by the lure of designer brands. I vaguely recall their reasoning. Something about how wearing non-designer labels would scar them for life, branding them as pariahs rejected by all of humanity, and how, as outcasts, they’d go mental, turn into serial killers and cost me a fortune in legal and psychotherapy bills. In short, they insisted that buying designer clothing would save me a bundle in the long run. Hmmm. Anyway, however loose their logic, one look at their wardrobes told me I had caved under their relentless pleas, forking over the dough to support their fix. Why have kids today become such brand loyalists and, even more important— is that bad?

The fact that kids worship certain brands isn’t the issue here— why they do and what additional effects this has on their lives is the issue! Consider human nature. We’re pack animals, just like dogs and wolves. So, we have a strong instinct to belong— to be accepted by a group. Kids are driven by this need even more than adults. But, we’re also reasoning animals, meaning we can think of all sorts of ways— harmful and healthy— to fulfill that instinct. The healthy way: earn acceptance through unique contributions that benefit the pack. This way, we don’t have to base choices on whatever we like, picking our own hairstyles, friends and music, deciding our best weight and following our own values.

But most folks (especially kids) try to gain acceptance by begging for it, conforming to pack standards instead of creating their own. They look for external cues from their peers and the pop culture to gauge how accepted they are and what trends are in. Then, with little introspection, they make their choices and shape their identity according to what will make them popular. So, choice-making becomes an external process hopelessly coupled to peer opinion.

What’s worse, the Digital Age has inundated our kids’ lives with more external messages, through more channels, with more intensity and at younger ages than ever before— messages that dictate every possible standard of acceptability— even how long the straps on their backpacks should be! This flood of messages not only cattle prods our kids into various trends, it leaves little opportunity for introspection. And guess whose messages have the most impact. Yep— companies with the marketing budgets big enough to broadcast propaganda messages at brain-wrenching decibels.

So what can we do to turn things around? We can raise them to think about themselves: let them experience consequences for every choice they make. Replace directives, commands and lectures with open-ended questions to encourage inner reflection on subjects from sex to peer pressure. Listen to them— and value what they have to say. Let them explore and play in environments and situations that aren’t so structured and planned, so their thoughts and imaginations can stretch their sleepy legs. We can discourage approval seeking by becoming their guides rather than their judges or dictators. That means scrapping all subjective evaluations that suggest we want them to develop an identity according to our specifications.

After all, kids need encouragement, guidance, objective feedback and unconditional love. They do not need judgement, praise, pride or approval. With this recipe for parenting, children learn to consciously filter and analyze the messages shouting at them so that they can think clearly for themselves. They will learn to assess themselves objectively rather than rely on outside opinion to figure out who they are and what they’re worth. That said, they will learn to make their choices— clothing or otherwise— based on what they think will make them, not others, successful, productive and happy. This is a recipe for inner strength, peace and wisdom... a recipe every child deserves to taste.