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In the Whirled: Raising kids in the material world

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 28 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

We don't have to bend our standards, but helping kids "fit in" might mean making some surprise sacrifices.

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In the ninth grade, I strutted into junior high wearing the hottest trends of the day: a navy-blue Adidas jacket and a teal Eastman backpack.

I was by no means a fashionista. More often than not, I got sent back to my room for wearing my brother’s oversized T-shirts.

“Tiffany, you’re going to a church dance,” my mother would say. “Try to look a little more feminine.”

But on this day, on this glorious day of entering into school at the top of the heap, where I knew everyone and everyone knew me, it was thrilling to look the part, to fit in.

We didn’t have a lot of money in those days. The Adidas jacket was a huge stretch for my parents, by far the priciest clothing item ever to grace my shoulders. But I also remember what my mom said as we slipped that coat off the hanger:

“Being Mormon, you kids already stand out enough. You can at least fit in with the clothes you wear.”

Quite a radical statement, I know, but you have to understand. She wasn’t telling me to compromise my standards as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. My shorts were longer and my shirts much looser than the trends of the day. She wasn’t telling me to follow the crowd like a lemming.

But my mom understood that there was already so much that set me apart, and that while setting oneself apart in high school becomes admirable, in junior high you want nothing more than to sail along with the masses and not get your nose broken. Kids are ruthless during the Dark Ages of middle school. The only hope is to come out the other end with a shred of self-esteem still intact.

I was reminded of this the other day while shopping for school supplies. My second-grader needed a new backpack. Of course he went straight to the most expensive backpack on the rack. It was the Cadillac of backpacks, replete with features he’ll never use: plush shoulder straps, built-in headphones and compartments for the phone and mp3 player that he doesn’t own.

The backpack cost much more than I wanted to spend. I brushed it off quickly as “too expensive” and headed to the pencil aisle for the essentials. I’m not much for material things, and I don't want my kids to grow up feeling entitled. This usually means I trend the other way, into sackcloth and second-hand clothing. I tell myself my kids should be happy to wear clothes at all.

But then I remembered that Adidas jacket. I remembered what it felt like to look the part.

We shouldn’t let our material possessions define who we are, as a kid, teenager or adult, but the fact is the material possessions we wear and drive and live in make a huge impact on our lives.

It feels good to look nice. Certainly our temples and LDS Church buildings could be made of rough-hewn pines and bare-bone furnishings. Instead, they are beautifully and tastefully decorated.

That doesn’t mean our kids need to have a brand name stapled across the chest of every shirt they own. Parents can become too obsessed with outfitting their kids in the latest fashions. But once in a while it’s good to surprise them with a touch of material empathy. It's good to remember what it was like to want nothing more than that particular pair of shoes, that one special bag or that favorite shirt.

I took my son back to the store to buy a backpack fit for a second grader. He didn’t get the Cadillac, with its padded straps and headphones. He ended up with the Corolla of backpacks, but it was “cool enough” and he left beaming.

In the meantime, I’ll save my pennies for those middle school years. Then, I just might surprise my kids with that special designer jacket, the one they thought they'd never be lucky enough to own.

Tiffany Gee Lewis lives in St. Paul, Minn., and is the mother of four boys. She blogs at thetiffanywindow.wordpress.com. Her email is tiffanyelewis@gmail.com

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