Wednesday, November 29, 2000
By GREGORY K. MOFFATT, PH.D
It is no secret that children are concerned about fitting in with their peers. They want to wear clothes that are similar to their friends' clothes, wear similar jewelry, and drive cars or ride bicycles that are popular models.
Every generation has a set of "peer trademarks." Peer trademarks are behaviors, possessions, or other things that identify an individual as a part of a given group. These trademarks change as time goes on and they are inevitable.
As children first enter the social world, even as early as kindergarten or first grade, they begin to develop an interest in how they are perceived by others. One way for children to feel a part of the group is to possess toys, lunchboxes, or clothing that is similar in nature to their peers.
As children enter adolescence, these trademarks become more important to them than ever. When I was a child in the 1960's, for example, one peer trademark was long hair. If one's hair did not at least begin to cover one's ears, then the person was thought to be a little odd.
Of course, trademarks are shallow and we would like our children to look deeper within themselves for acceptance and meaning to life, but the fact is, most children are not that mature. In fact, adults do the same thing.
For example, how else could you explain the SUV craze? How many of us really "need" these 4-wheel drive, gas-guzzling vehicles? They look good and they are popular. They are indicative of peer trademarks for our current adult age.
If peer trademarks are inevitable, the question then becomes "Which ones do we allow for our children and which ones are unproductive or harmful?" The following questions can help us answer this question.
The first question I ask is, "Is the trademark physically/mentally/emotionally damaging or unhealthy?" For example, tattoos are very popular peer trademarks these days. There is nothing inherently wrong with a tattoo, but they are permanent and one can get diseases from poorly sanitized equipment. Therefore, the decision to get a tattoo should wait until the person is an adult.
The second question is, "What does the peer trademark communicate about the individual?" Does the trademark violate family rules, morals, or religious conduct? Does it communicate disrespect for self or others? One should never compromise the family's code of conduct for something so shallow as 'fitting in.'
For example, facial piercing is becoming popular. I know of no religion that forbids this activity, but in our current culture, this fad creates an atmosphere of disrespect for oneself and for others. Facial piercing does not communicate individuality, as argued by boys and girls. Rather it communicates an attitude of arrogance. Again, if adults choose to engage in this behavior, that is their choice, but for children, it is an inappropriate trademark.
Third, how much financial investment is involved? Regardless of family income, if a peer trademark involves significant financial investment, such as buying a very expensive vehicle, very expensive clothing, or expensive jewelry, I think it is a bad idea. Such behavior communicates shallowness on the part of parents and when its primary purpose is to help the child fit in, it implies that friends are something that you buy.
One last question is, "Can you say 'yes'?" When evaluating the pros and cons of the things my children want, I try to remember the words of one of my friends. When his boys were in their teenage years, he once said to me, "I look for ways to say 'yes' to my sons." That is good advice.
For example, parents have often asked me if they should allow their sons to get an earring. One earring in one ear or one in each ear is not expensive and does not necessarily compromise moral values or communicate disrespect.
If the piercing is done in a sanitary facility and the ears are properly cared for, earrings are not a health risk. If the child later decides to remove the earring, the ear will grow back. Therefore, I don't think it is necessarily a bad idea to allow older adolescents to get an earring.
(As I described above, I don't feel the same way about other body piercing - i.e. noses, tongues, eyebrows, because, in our current culture, they communicate something much different than earrings.)
These three questions do not cover all of the issues, of course, but it is a place to start. If allowing the behavior or trademark is not damaging, does not communicate disrespect for self or others, and does not demonstrate shallowness on the parent's part, say yes when you can.