Two weeks before my son’s 16th birthday, after shrugging off my suggestions that we do something to celebrate, he emailed me a wish list that included $350 sneakers. The apparently coveted Y-3 Retro Boost looked, to me, exactly like regular black sneakers with white soles, but also included some complicated loop at the heel.
Perhaps I should have been appalled, but I was not. Or rather, I was appalled but not surprised. The tension over what to buy and what not to buy started the Halloween he was 5. I knew Prefab vs. DIY was not a new or original generational battlefield, but I also thought relenting with a store-bought Flash costume would gain me some leverage (i.e., pick your battles).
I was 23 when he was born, too young to understand how little control I would actually have as he grew. My son’s father and I were living in rural India when I’d gotten pregnant and returned there after our baby turned 1. I had not had a thousand-dollar stroller or a designer layette. Instead, I had 12 cloth diapers we washed out at the hand pump.
Because we’d spent so much of my son’s early years avoiding American consumerism, I was shocked to see how quickly it surfaced once we were back and how unequipped I was for all the judgment aimed at me for what I bought for my son or didn’t.
Which is to say that as he’s grown, the stakes have gotten higher – more expensive and more emotionally loaded – and I still don’t know what the right thing is. Because just avoiding this pair of $350 sneakers doesn’t solve the problem of trying to raise a self-reliant kid at a time when we’re all bombarded with the capitalist mantra that products are, in fact, essential to our sense of self and self-worth.
My son is a sensitive, observant boy with a kind heart and a sharp sense of humor. He takes good care of his little sister, is respectful to his teachers, and worked hard this summer at his first job, “landscaping” (or picking up trash) at a local park.
But, born in 1999, he is also very much a product of his generation, who, in a sweeping generalization that also feels quite specific, seem to exist on this fulcrum between consumerism and technology – using their phones to trawl for products, to buy the products, to post pictures of the products on their phones.
In addition to my angst over increasing sweatshop labor, corporate profits and landfill waste, I lie awake in the middle of the night most anxious about something that happened when my son was about 10: he explained his certainty that an expensive watch would make anyone happy. “If you had that watch, people would want to be around you,” he said with the logic of a child who was hard at work interpreting the world around him. Which is exactly why I know that he can hardly be blamed for emulating the very principles of the wider American culture in which he’s been raised.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit that as a 6-year-old in 1982, I named my tabby cat Gucci after a classmate’s father traveled to Italy and brought her home the purse our second-grade class agreed changed everything. As one of only a handful of lower-middle-class kids at my private, all-girl Catholic school, I got an inadvertent crash course in expensive preppy. It was also the 1980s, when the whole U.S. stopped going to church and started going to the mall instead. Great!
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