Kids’ clothing shouldn’t make a statement, David Zweig writes, especially if it’s the parents who’re making it.
I recently learned of a company in Brooklyn, where I live and am raising a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and an eight-month-old son, that sells shirts and “onesies” with an image of either an iPhone or Blackberry with “Put It Down” written on its face. As a part-time stay-at-home-dad who has spent many an afternoon at the playground cringing at the multitude of parents and caregivers glued to their smart phones, while at best paying half-attention to their playing toddlers, I appreciate the sentiment of the shirt. And yet something about it rubs me the wrong way, and I’m not talking about the abrasion of a cotton-poly blend.
The first time I remember having an awareness of a joke shirt was probably the “Unbutton My Fly” shirt worn by what seemed like half the adults and teenagers at an amusement park I went to one afternoon twenty-odd years ago. The shirt played on the then-popular Levis’ “Button My Fly” campaign, and even as a kid I remember thinking that’s pretty lame, and being strangely depressed by seeing adults wearing them. This type of shirt is dumb on a thirteen-year-old, of course, but at least that’s expected. To this day when I see people in their thirties and beyond sporting a t-shirt with a lame play on words or mock logo (behold the golden arch of McDonald’s with “Marijuana” written below it) a complex smug sadness comes over me. My reaction goes something like this: self-satisfied dismissal, followed by disheartenedment based on my assumption that this person must be a doofus and that I have to live in a world populated by people like this, followed by guilt for being such an elitist ass for judging someone else’s taste.
Seeing an idiotic shirt on a child, who didn’t choose to wear it, though, brings my smug sadness sinkhole down yet another level. And anyone who has spent time around kids recently knows there has been an explosion of babies and toddlers in these shirts. Anything we dress our children in sends a message of one sort or another, but these adult-directed joke shirts—”AB/CD” written in the band AC/DC’s typeface, or an image of an iPod with “iPood” written below it—make me uneasy. My reaction is a close cousin to the way I feel when I see a pet poodle with one of those insane haircuts they sometimes are given—the owner might as well have shaved “I have no dignity” on the dog’s back.
To one degree or another kids will always be an extension of their parents. How they look and conduct themselves in the world reflects on their parents’ values and tastes. Typically, the younger the child the stronger the reflection is. So it’s especially incumbent on parents of very young children to respect their personhood as much as is reasonable.
The other day at a party with my daughter I eagerly commanded her to count to ten in Spanish for a friend. I was proud that she could do this and I wanted to show off. Yet as she demurred, burying her head in my lap, I instantly felt guilty for even suggesting it. When I’m in a social situation I often have to remind myself that my kids’ role is not for me to impress other people. I can be proud of them privately with my family and that’s enough. If my daughter wants to entertain daddy’s friend with her bilingual mathematics, more power to her. But it’s her power, not mine.
The one area where very young children generally have zero power is clothing. We sometimes let our daughter choose between a few different outfit options from her dresser, but that’s about it. The clothes have already been purchased; her shopping days are, thankfully, still a few years away. (The only sartorial affinity my son has demonstrated thus far is that he’s happiest when he’s in his birthday suit.) Kids wearing clothing their parents buy for them isn’t a big deal of course, but the rub is when clothing is no longer just clothing but a billboard (even though—I admit it—my kids don a few of these themselves; my son does look cute in his “No Sleep Till” onesie from Brooklyn Industries).
When a child is wearing a shirt with a specific message on it, rather than just regular clothing, they’re being used in a more explicit way as a vehicle for their parents’ own egos. If my kid can’t join in on the joke, something feels off about her being the one to project it to everyone. It reduces the child to being an accessory in the same way that asking your daughter to perform for others reduces her to being an entertainer.
Taking the famous Marshall McLuhan adage “the medium is the message” to heart, the problem with the “Put It Down” shirt isn’t the message, but that it’s on a baby’s shirt.
—Photo An en Alain/Flickr