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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Kids and Teens Keeping Up with the Joneses?

Image: Rosen Georgiev / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
This post will get a bit more personal than some of my usual posts, I'm warning you in advance. And I wanted to say that I spoke to all parties involved who are aware that I plan on writing a post on this topic, what I plan on saying, and they're totally cool with it, as they see my issue with what they're doing as a philosophical and parenting difference, and not criticism. So its not slandering or trash talking or speaking ill of others, just bringing in different viewpoints.

In many ways, I am a non conformist. I buck the trend and do things very differently than others do, because I don't believe in keeping up with the Joneses. I believe in living within your means and living according to your values, even when you might be the odd one out for doing certain things.
This aspect of my personality certainly didn't come from no where.
In fact, I come from a family of non conformists. A family of people who march to the beat of their own drummer, even if others may think they're cuckoo for doing so.

When I was a kid, my mother tried to make sure we followed the values she held dear. Among those were being creative and being unique... even if we didn't want to be creative or unique. She wanted us to do what we wanted to do, to do what was the right thing, and not give in to peer pressure, to not decide to do something just because everyone else is doing it.

I'll be honest- I hated it. I wanted to fit in. I hated being different. I just wanted to blend in with the crowd, be one of the bunch. I didn't need people to look at me because I came to school wearing special clothing to commemorate a special day that out of all the families in my school, pretty much only mine celebrated. I didn't want to get stares and mockery because I was wearing hopelessly out of date and fashion faux pas clothing and glasses.

I knew that what I wore and being like everyone else wasn't the most important thing in the world, but gosh darnit, I wanted to be like everyone else!


Flashback. I was in the 6th grade. A holiday was approaching. Our teacher sent home a note asking all parents to please send in x amount of money (don't remember exactly how much, but it certainly wasn't pennies) to cover material for a project that we were going to do with the class in honor of the holiday.
My mother, when she heard the cost of the project, was taken aback. That much money for a grade school project? That, from experience with my older sister who was in the same class the year before, meant that all students would get the same exact material, and they'd be instructed step by step as to how to make the projects. Which would all turn out the same.
My mom didn't want to send in the money for what she felt was a waste. Lots of money spent so that each girl could follow instructions down to the letter and do the same as everyone else. Where's the creativity? Where's the originality? What was the point of such a project?
My mother, after speaking to the teachers, consented to send in the money for the project.
On one condition.
I was to take the materials given, and while my classmates were doing their identical projects, I was to think of another project entirely to do with the same materials and do it.
I was mortified. As it is, I was the oddball in my class because of how I was dressed (my mother refused to buy us clothing that was remotely fashionable or glasses that weren't hopelessly out of date), because of what I did in my spare time, because my family's religious views were different than the norm in my school, etc... and then I was forced to do something that set me even more apart in a very obvious way. That out of the 20 girls doing a project, I was the one who had to do it differently than everyone else.
It was embarrassing. Dreadfully so. I hated every second of it. My mother kept that project for years, and every time I saw it, I was reminded of what I went through and it caused me to cringe in humiliation.
It's 12 years later, and I still remember that incident very clearly.
And I would never do something like that to my kids.
(I have to give my mother credit; she understands now how much this forced non conformity affected me socially and emotionally, and she apologized for not being in tune enough with my emotional need to be accepted when I was growing up.)


Fast forward to this summer. My teenaged sister reached a milestone birthday which is celebrated in our communities with a big event. Every classmate of hers and every kid in the community had a large party to which the entire age group in the community gets invited. My sister couldn't wait to have her turn. She was the youngest in the class, and so she saw what the standards were for this coming of age party among her peers.
Party preparations were all made, and a little before the big day, sis turns to Mom and says "Can I get my hair professionally styled and made into an elaborate hairdo for my party?"
My mother shook her head in disbelief. What a huge waste of money for something completely silly, she thought to herself.
"Why do you want this updo for your party? Its totally unnecessary!"
"But Mom, every single other girl got her hair professionally styled into an updo for her party... Why can't I?"
"If all your friends jumped off the Empire State Building, would you too? Just because everyone else is doing something doesn't mean you need to do it too, " was Mom's reply.

Fortunately for my little sis, her big sister and brother in law Mike were there to talk to mom and intervene.
"Mom, did all the other girls get their hair styled for their parties?"
"Well, out of 40 girls, there was one girl who didn't."
"So sister isn't exaggerating when she said every other girl got her hair styled for the party. What exactly is wrong with her getting an updo? What is so terrible with wanting to not stick out from her friends?"
"Peer pressure is bad because it pressures you to go against your values and do wrong things."
"Mom, which values is sister going against by getting her hair styled? What is wrong about that?"
"Well, I don't like this focus on materialism, and I don't want to encourage excessive materialism and self centeredness by condoning things as frivolous as getting an updo on top of having a large party."

Mike and I gave each other this look, full of meaning...
Now let me give a little background. Every one of my siblings had a hard time socially growing up, and even now, we're not the most socially adept people.
Everyone, except my littlest sister.
She's miss social butterfly, popular, well liked. Completely different from everyone else in my family in that sense. Because she picks up social cues easily, realizes what is socially accepted and socially expected, and conforms to that.
And that, in my opinion, is a positive thing. Not something to squelch.
If someone picks up what is the social norm in an area and actually is interested in not sticking out, but to actually be part of the greater whole that is the group of peers, then that's not something to discourage. So long as it doesn't go contrary to morals.
Which brings us back to that updo my sister so desperately wanted.

Mike and I had a little chat with my mother about the importance of not sticking out in a negative way. And if you're the only kid out of 40 to not do something, that doesn't exactly help you socially. It just gives your peers a reason to look at you funny.
I brought up the story of that art project in 6th grade to my mom, and told her how much it still bugs me to this day to have been forced to be different when I really desperately wanted to fit in. "Please don't do that to sister. She, out of every kid in our family, has a chance of having a normal social life. Don't destroy that for her, please, Mom."
Fortunately, after this discussion, my mother did understand the point that Mike and I were trying to bring, and agreed to let little sis get that hair styling, even if my mom still thought it was nonsense.

I'm going on and on with personal stories, and I still haven't gotten to the point of this post. Or maybe I have.
I think keeping up with the Joneses is ridiculous, because the Joneses aren't paying your bills, and I've discussed this topic plenty on my blog.
Yet... when it comes to kids, what do you do? Do you make sure they don't keep up with the Joneses, to show that you don't need to do something just because its "the done thing", even if it might make things harder for your kids socially? Or do you let your kids conform, even if you think that what they want is wasteful?

How do you combine sticking to your values and not letting peers dictate what you do, living within your means, and also not make your children social pariahs?
That, my friends, is possibly one of the toughest parenting issues for the frugal family, and is also probably one of the toughest parenting issues for every parent who cares about their child.
I'm not a parenting expert, nor do I profess to know all the answers. And I am not even the mother of teens yet. (And not for a while!) But these are my thoughts based on what I've experienced in my own life as a child and teen not too long ago, as a sister, as a wife, and as mother to my own young two children.

I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post that I am a non conformist. I do my own thing, and don't do what is expected of the average woman my age.
But at the same time, I manage to not be a social pariah. I don't get funny looks, nor am I the quirky oddball in my community.
How is that?
Well, because I live in a community of people who pretty much all buck the trend in some way. My community is pretty much a community of non comformists. Everyone is unique in their own way, and I don't mean that in a cliched way at all. Where I live, the norm is to be semi quirky, and because of that, even with all the non typical things that I and my family do, I fit in just fine. I "conform" by being different and non conformist. If some typical conformist were to live here, they would be the non conformist of the lot! (In case you were wondering, we're not all non comformists of the same type, we're not a community of hippies or goths or punks or whatever, we each just are different one from another in many different ways.)
One of the special things about my community is there isn't pressure to "keep up with the Joneses" simply because there is no "Joneses" here. Or rather, there's the Blacks and the Aldrichs and the Gonzaleses, etc... Because in my community there are so many different types, there is no one specific thing that everyone does or one specific way that everyone is that we get pressured to keep up with, which is a terrific thing in general, but also is a real boon when trying to raise your kids with your values and to not give in to pervasive negative peer pressure.

But peer pressure, is it really such a terrible thing?
I once read something about the role peer pressure plays in the development of the self. I don't remember exactly where I read it, so please don't ask me for the source, but from what I recall, there are various stages of identity development when growing up. When little, children's identity is that as “part of their family”, but as they grow up and mature, peer pressure plays a role in helping the teenager develop an identity that is unique to who they are, helps them learn what is important to them, what they value, and who they're all about, and learn to define themselves.
Peer pressure sometimes gets teens to do things that really aren't good, but that doesn't make peer pressure itself bad. In fact, if there is a teen who never tries to conform and to fit himself into greater society, that actually is problematic. To be a valuable functioning member of society, we are expected to live by and conform to certain basic rules. People who don't are considered to be sociopaths...
In short, if a teenager wants to conform to certain things that are the norm in your community, this shouldn't be discouraged, so long as these things aren't dangerous, unhealthy, immoral, or illegal. Because caring what other people think about you, not wanting to stand out and be noticeably different is actually healthy as a teen, and, in my opinion, pretty important. Its not a good idea to force your child to be a social reject; it'll come back to bite you in the foot, and can easily have long term repercussions for how your child views himself and acts once he's an adult.
As an adult, however, peer pressure isn't nearly as important, because by then we should have already learned what it means to be part of society, and what values we hold dear, and our basic personalities have already been developed, and we should feel confident enough in what we believe to stand up and do things we think are correct, even if they're unpopular decisions.
An adult who only cares about keeping up with the Joneses is problematic. As a teen though, it is developmentally appropriate, and somewhat important.

That said, peer pressure can be extreme, and the toll on the parent's pocketbook that the peer pressure can have can be quite tremendous.
How do you balance healthy teen peer pressure with living within your means?

The first part would be choosing where you live wisely. By living in a place like my community with many different types and therefore less pervasive peer pressure, there is less of a constant need to conform in expensive ways. Additionally, because my community is comprised largely of people not well to do, even the peer pressure here is of the less expensive variety. I am sure that if I'd live in a more expensive community, my kids would feel that in order to not stand out in a negative way, they'd need all sorts of expensive gadgets and fancy things, but fortunately here, it's less of an issue.
When my mom was complaining about the materialistic aspect of young teens getting professional hairstyling for their birthday parties, I understood her issue, but at the same time, can you expect any different from my sister, that she won't want a “materialistic updo” when every single other girl in her peer group got one? If something is important enough to you that you would want to set your foot down about it if your child wanted it, instead of making your child stand out negatively by refusing to allow it, make sure that the community you live in and the circles your children travel in reflect those values that you hold dear.

Secondly, if you want peer pressure to be less of a pervasive influence in your child's life, you need to consider where he or she is spending the majority of their day. Is your child spending most of his waking hours with her age mates in school, or is your she spending the majority of his day with his family? As much as a family's role is great and influential, whereever your child spends most of his time will play a large part in what values he adopts. Make sure that the school you send to has pupils whose values are in line with your own, and if that isn't an option, consider homeschooling.
While homeschoolers are certainly not immune to peer pressire, especially if they have a healthy social life, peer pressure will play less of a role than it would in school. And even if your child is forced to buck the trend because of tight finances, it'll affect his self esteem and self image less than it would if the he was spending all day with people who look down upon him and mock him for “sticking out”.

Thirdly, while you certainly don't need to give in to your child's every demand just because she insists that “everyone is doing it” or “everyone has it”, it would be foolish to dismiss that as silliness when that claim truly does hold water. If there is a small group of friends who have or do something expensive, and you think its a waste of money, then by all means, don't give in to those demands. It'll just spoil your child.
But seriously, keep your eyes and ears open. Speak to other parents. Keep your finger on the pulse of what is going on and learn what really IS the norm, and don't force your child to be different from nearly everyone else, such as what my mother wanted to do with my sister with the hairdo. If your child will be in the extreme minority for not having or doing something, even if you think its frivolous, its still important to allow your child to not be an outcast. Your kid doesn't need to be “the popular one with all the latest, coolest, greatest things”, but at the same time, if at all possible, try to make sure that your child isn't the one who gets ridiculed becaue they stick out for being the “sad, pathetic, poor one who doesn't have anything nice”.

One last way to help with the peer pressure vs frugality aspect is to give your child the ability to earn money and spend it on things that are important to her. Whether this is from babysitting, allowance, doing a newspaper delivery route, shoveling sidewalks, raking leaves, or lawn mowing, your child should have some money of her own that she can use to keep up with her peers without you needing to shell out your money on these extras regularly. Not only will this help your child learn to budget money, a valuable skill, but she will also be forced to prioritize and see what exactly means the most to her and to spend her money accordingly. Even if you think its frivolous, your child should be allowed to do what she wants to with her money; learning from mistakes is the best financial lesson, especially when you're just a teen and can't get yourself into too much trouble from it. And even if something might seem trivial and unimportant to you, it may mean the world to your daughter to be able to buy fashionable shoes, or go out for pizza and a movie with her classmates and not need to say “Sorry, my mother thinks that's a waste of money and doesn't let me.”

Keeping up with the Joneses? Financially devastating generaly.

Teens trying conform to the norms in their social circles? An important stage of development, but potentially costly, that hopefully, with the suggestions written above, won't send you to the poorhouse.


What do you think about teens and comformity? Do you think you should try to encourage your teenagers to buck the trend and be different, as a way of training them “to be independent minded” and to learn to be money smart for the future? Or do you agree with me that teens certainly should be allowed and even encouraged to conform, within limits?
How were you as a teenager? Were you a conformist? Did you have the same things as the other kids in your peer group? Or were you the “odd one out” because of frugality, your disinterest, or your parents' not permitting you? How did that affect who and how you are today?

If you have kids that are teenaged or older, what do/did you do with them, and how is that working for you? If you have kids that are younger than teenagers, but still at an old enough age where peer pressure is already starting somewhat (and trust me, it can begin as early as preschool or kindergarten), how do you respond to requests from your children that have been inspired by peer pressure, and how do you plan on dealing with it when your child is older and peers play an even bigger role in their lives?

3 comments:

  1. I don't recall who was paying for this oh-so-necessary hairstyle, but in my family if we wanted to waste money on something that frivolous, we paid for it ourselves. Youtube has an endless amount of free how-to videos, many by professional stylists. If she absolutely has to spend money on a professional stylist to gain her friends acceptance, that is a very bad sign. Hopefully it was just insecurity.

    There is no reason to purposely stand out for the sake of standing out, but there is no purpose in wasting money on something unnecessary solely to prove something that won't even be noticed (people won't be talking about her hair a year from now unless it looked bad. Like actually bad.)

    Frankly I would have been thrilled to get the big party - NEVER would have brought up the hair. I had three people over at my sweet-sixteen.

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  2. I think conformity is highly overrated and parents do their children no favors intellectually or socially by rushing to protect them from the momentary stares or comments of their peers. I can sympathize with your experiences as a pre-teen with such a non-conformist mother. But I would wager that there were girls in your 6th grade classroom who envied or admired your ability to be different and carve your own path.

    I too grew up with a mother who was anti-consumerist/materialist (influenced primarily with her Depression era upbringing). By the time I graduated high school, I was sick and tired of hearing about the Joneses and I rebelled by spending the money I initially earned on minimum wage jobs on frivolous items, such as a $100 haircut and a pair of $75 jeans -- in 1983!!) However, my mother's words were never far from mind. I quickly realized that my life was fulfilled by my family, friends, education, and career, not by the stuff I could buy.

    Now that I am a wife and mother with a 17-year old son, I am grateful for my mother's early warnings about the dangers of consumerism. I have sought more middle ground in my own parenting style, allowing our son freedom to spend a portion of the money he earns or receives as gifts as he sees fit. I believe he will learn, like I did, more through his own mistakes than what sounds like just another parental lecture.

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  3. I just read this, although it's an older post, and I wanted to say how much I respect and admire your viewpoint. It's very, very painful as a child not to fit in to your peer group. It can result in profound psychological impairment and the inability to rely on your own judgement. That may sound extreme, but in my case, the non-fitting-in led to some pretty prolonged and severe bullying, with the end result that I hated myself, thought I was a loser, and second-guessed most of my own choices, always opting to go for what was considered cool vs. my own preference. It's taken me years to undo this damage, and feeling strong and secure is still an ongoing battle. There's a line between following social trends blindly and wasting huge amounts of money, and making your kid a target. I remember with my own kids, we had far less money than the community we lived in in general. I'm a private music teacher, and in order to do well, needed to live in a wealthy community that could afford those kinds of luxuries. I made it a priority to buy my kids a few things, often the things that would get the most use like snowsuits, etc, that were the new colours and styles, even if not the most expensive brands. You also need to respond to the individual child and situation. My daughter had mostly thrift store clothes the year she was about 11, and one day she dissolved into tears because she had "nothing nice to wear". I said, what about this dress? Holding up a blue dress with white polkadots, which to my adult eyes seemed to be fairly in sync with what the other kids were wearing. She exploded, "I look like the mama in the Berenstein Bears in that dress!" I knew instantly that for her to react like that, this was real anguish and not selfishness, and made it a priority to get her a couple of new things the very next day. I think she learned FAR more from my response to her real outcry than any other thing I could have possibly wanted to teach her. The price paid for those bits of clothing, for showing her that as a human being she had intense value to me, was the best bargain I could possibly have hoped for.

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