Go to the mall and linger in the clothing stores that are a magnet for young people and watch the shoppers frenetically going through the racks and bins. Check out the mannequins and gigantic posters of models — rail-thin women with well-placed curves, and young men with glistening abs, hairless chests and jeans slung low. Take in the flashing lights, pulsating music and store clerks wearing headsets as if they’re directing planes to land. Stroll around and see the clusters of teens trying to look nonchalant as they check out the other kids going by, but can’t quite hide their anxiousness. They are all trying so hard to be normal; normal just as the posters and mannequins surrounding them define it.
Despite the sensory overload, the mall does offer some benefits for your teen. It provides a spot for kids to expand their horizons outside of parental supervision in a situation that’s somewhat loose, but not devoid of rules and expectations for behavior. The key is to prepare your child.
Mastering the Mall Step by Step
- Take your school-aged child shopping and casually talk about money, marketing, public behavior, and the importance of treating people serving you with respect.
- Right before adolescence, do your own observing at the mall (see above). It will alert you to what you need to do to prepare your teen.
- Encourage her to invite friends along on shopping trips, and get a sense of how they behave together.
- After you become comfortable they can handle it, allow them to go ahead, but keep them in sight.
- Next, accompany them to the mall, but go off on your own. Have your child call at designated times and to discuss potential purchases.
- Eventually, start to drop off and pick her up at a pre-arranged place and time, allowing longer stays as she proves responsible.
- Finally, your child can begin to take public transportation back and forth to the mall if that’s an option.
Cultivating Good Values
- Public behavior. Seize on this opportunity to teach your child how to conduct himself in public.
- Shopping etiquette. Young shoppers should be expected to put merchandise back where they found it, wait in line at the register, and be polite to clerks. Teach your child that a smile and a thank you go a long way with a frazzled clerk. (Some day your child will be doing a job interview over lunch and the potential employer will be either impressed or turned off by the she treats the waiter.)
- Shoplifting. Adolescents might not plan to shoplift, but can fall into it to impress their friends — the dare element at work. Your child needs to know to remove himself from a group if he suspects someone of stealing.
- Money smarts. Your adolescent needs to know how to calculate discounts (what does 30 percent off mean?) and read the fine print on sale signs to recognize gimmicks. She also needs to know that just because something costs more does not mean it’s of superior quality.
- Marketing awareness. Stores use all sorts of tricks — lighting, color, smells, seductive words — to reel in shoppers. Manipulation is all part of the selling game. Sex particularly sells when it comes to adolescents, even if it is subtly presented under the guise of health and fitness. The mall is a huge laboratory to teach that self-esteem doesn’t come from buying into the notion that you have to look a certain way to be lovable, desirable and happy.
- Body image. Your child develops a sense of what’s normal by what he sees in his environment. At the mall, kids see mannequins shaped unlike real human beings, pictures of models who have to starve to stay thin and racks of clothes where Size 0 is a choice. Don’t play into this distorted sense of normal by saying, “You look thin in that,” or “It will fit perfectly if you lose a few pounds.” You want your child to understand their real value comes from who they are in the inside, not the shape of their body or what they wear on the outside.
Bottom Line: Teens have to be well-prepared to deal with a highly charged atmosphere designed to get them to spend money. They have to be able to filter the subtle and not-so-subtle messages that may cause them to feel badly about who they are, what they can afford or what they look like.