“You got a package in the mail today,” I tell both daughters.
“Our socks!” they squeal in unison as only girls can. They run down the hall after letting their trapper keepers clunk to the floor under the weight of fourth grade homework. It’s a cool moment watching them rejoice, and I savor it like a happy Christmas morning. I give my wife a smile and nod. This was my idea. Look how I make them happy.
Who knew that getting a mismatched pair of socks from FedEx would be such a major cause for celebration? But when elementary school girls see their BFFs in new gear, they have to have it too. The problem is, as breadwinner, I am the main force behind them getting it. So as I see their over-excitement, I’m thinking it might actually be a good time to prepare them for inevitable fact that you cannot have it all.
It’s a tough lesson to teach. In time, the things they are convinced they want will no longer cost $3.99 a pair. Teaching them this life lesson is more than teaching them the value of money. But for now, getting the lesson to sink in has monetary value.
My daughters, codenamed MC and Six, have everything they want. And we are nowhere near a six figure household. They’re jetsetters, traveling to Brazil twice a year after living there all their lives. They have a closet full of toys. They have about a dozen pairs of shoes, a wall of books and they participate in after school activities. My oldest, MC, told me she got a top score on her standardized tests for English Language Arts. They’re doing well. They’re healthy. They own stocks. And now they have funny socks from Little Miss Matched. It’s all good to them.
Luckily my daughters aren’t spoiled, but it’s a safe bet if their friends have something new, they’ll want it too. They are the perfect targets for “buzz marketing.” In that regard, their consumer cravings are not peculiarly American. It was the same in São Paulo, Brazil.
When MC saw her friend Viv Valentine with a large flower hair clip, a fashion statement she picked up from a star of Big Brother Brasil, she wanted one. When her friends started collecting stickers and exchanging them in fancy sticker albums, she wanted to join in. Sometimes they created the trends themselves, like I swear my youngest started the mismatched sox craze when she was two. Most times they penned their shopping list from the ether, straight down from the cultural zeitgeist. Viv Valentine didn’t get the flower clip idea because she was an 8-year-old watching the voyeur porn that is Big Brother. She got it in a supermarket when she saw it in a celebrity magazine at a check-out counter. Hair clips and stickers are not costly items. But when MC wanted a $150 doll called Miracle Baby because all her friends had one, I put my foot down. Unfortunately, my father in law stepped on it and bought her one instead.
What’s a parent to do?
How does one go up against the narrative of popular opinion makers, like an Oprah Winfrey, who once said that you can have it all, just not all at once? Then there’s The Secret, of course, which told us that like a genie in the bottle, we just need to ask and we shall receive. Even the Bible tells us; The Secret reminds us. The universe gives us what we want over time. Adults believe it. Their children do, too. Only at that age, their Milky Way is me. Like a good genie, you want socks that don’t match? Poof! You got it, baby!
And why do you want them? Because they are cool. All the kids are wearing them, sort of. I mean, let’s not exaggerate here. During winter break, an 11-year-old we didn’t know was dancing her life away with about 20 other tweenie-boppers in front of a Disney Radio stage cranking out Justin Beiber tunes at the Marriot. She’s good. She’s going to win the dance competition for sure, I tell MC. She zeroes in on that one 11-year-old girl’s feet. “You see, that, daddy? She’s got the socks.”
“You think that‘s what makes her dance so well?” I ask.
She knows I‘m joking. “Her dancing’s good,” MC says. “But I want those socks. Can I have them, daddy?” she says. She doesn’t need to bat her eyelashes or clasp her hands in prayer. She doesn’t know whether I will say yes or no, and at this point, because she knows she’s got it good, I don’t think she even cares if those funky socks are as trendy as Hollywood actors with British accents.
Dads enjoy making their daughters happy. Most fathers, like most men, want to make women happy. One way we make them happy is buying them things. When Madonna or Marilyn Monroe sing about diamonds, it’s men who give them diamonds.
Whether bling or silly string, I’m thinking controlling a girl’s consumer impulses might be more dad’s job than mom‘s.
In my case, I am the one who brought them to the Little Miss Matched website. My wife had never heard of it. She probably would have told the girls to pick a pair of socks from the matching socks they already have, and mismatch them.
She whispers a warning to me. “Careful. You’re turning them into shopaholics,” she says.
I don’t want that to happen because I can‘t afford to raise shopaholic teens. More than that, teaching them that they cannot have it all is an important lesson in life. Life can be disappointing enough without feeling left out or left behind because of an inability to satisfy some desire. Whether it’s a desire for a summer home in Martha’s Vineyard, a lover, or a dream job, learning to accept going without is a healthy way to prepare for life’s unexpected and sometimes brutal failures. You cannot have it all. Sometimes you cannot have it at all.
I don’t want my daughters to turn into this woman some day. I also don‘t want to raise my child to be like this kid bemoaning his parents’ lame minivan. (Thank God it‘s a boy!) There’s a reason our kids want everything they see. We know where this pre-packaged notion really comes from.
I don’t want to raise a material girl. No way.
So when my youngest comes home on Thursday with a drawing of the White House and a story hand-written on lined paper about what she will do as President of the United States, I’m suddenly proud and relieved that her goal is not to be a shopper. Because in the mind of a first-grader, going to the mall to buy something for yourself might be a job.
I read out loud: “When I’m President of the United States I will sit in a big chair and be the boss of the world,” she wrote.
I tell her, “You won’t be the boss of the world. And you won’t really be the boss of the United States, either. That‘s Congress’ job.” Her eyes glaze over. But there‘s more. From that big chair she will sit and tell everyone what to do. I ask her what she will tell them to do.
“As president, I will tell them all to go shopping,” she says.
—Photo: Art Institute of Portland/Flickr Cartoon: CartoonStock