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Consumer confidence

The XX files


A few weeks ago my son, now 13, asked me to take him to the mall. "We never go to the mall," he said with the wail of the truly deprived. Now, he knows what I think of malls. He knows, further, that I do not even look at them when we drive by on the highway except to sneer.

"Kids, when you shop at a mall only 14 percent of your money stays in the region. The rest lines corporate coffers and stockholders' pockets."

And, "Things don't make people happy."

He knows all this but, alas, he knows much more. He knew, on that sunny Sunday when we should have been out hiking, for example, exactly what to say to make me stop my mall boycott.

"But Mom, the mall is the modern agora."

The kid plays me like a violin. In retrospect, I can almost hear his internal monologue: Say something she won't be able to resist. Appeal to her exultation of the Ancients and to her sense of vanity about what a great job she's done raising clever little me. I ran a comb through my hair, got in the car, and took him to the mall.

When I was his age, I was turning tricks in Harvard Square. Well, okay. Not really. Every parent compares her childhood to her kids' early years in her own way. This is how I romanticize mine, a complete fabrication that illuminates nothing more than my tendency to indulge in self-pity and my disdain for the relative Easy Street I've created for my kids.

At 13 I was a mini-mogul, raking in enough money (from daily babysitting gigs and three morning newspaper routes) to buy a ticket to visit my friend in the Netherlands. Whether I worked constantly out of necessity or out of a sick desire to work constantly is lost to history.

But the fact remains that during the time I was saving for my trip, my mother decided she was done shopping for me. I would be paying for my clothes, shoes, and anything else I wanted --- outside of food and shelter --- from then on.

(In my mother's defense, shopping for me was no picnic. I was fat before the rest of you, before plus-sized children's clothing, before loose-fit waistbands. Blinking back tears of frustration, we pawed through the stiff jeans and striped shirts in the boys' department at Sears, searching for clothes marked "chunky.")

When my free ride ended, adolescence kicked in. I slimmed down and shot up. Suddenly finding clothes was a breeze. The paying? Not so much. Luckily, not only did cool clothes finally fit, my new height made it a lot easier to conceal Pink Floyd albums, India-print shirts, and crinkled gauze skirts under my coat. She didn't really expect me to actually spend my money on that stuff, did she?

My children will feel neither the barb of being cut off nor the indescribable freedom of being allowed to fly with a friend (no parents!) to visit a family in Europe. Like all kids, they're proud of their neighborhood cat-sitting jobs and like to save up for things. But I continue to buy their clothes (and Tevas and hiking boots and running shoes and soccer cleats and dressy shoes and flip-flops and Chuck Taylors and board shoes. And. And.).

How on earth will they ever break away? And where will they go when it's time to test themselves in the world? I hope not the mall. And forget about Holland.

For now, sadly, it seems the siren song of the modern agora --- the thrilling video-game commercials and the witty movie product placements --- is luring my children to the mall's rocky shores, where lives are cheapened and fortunes lost. The great irony of this is that it was in stores that I found myself. So much of who I am today was formed by how, as a teen, I engaged the world of commerce. Being able to pay for - and sometimes even stealing - the things I wanted allowed me to feel accepted in a way that I hadn't before.

I worry about my children, because it's the very desires I had then that advertisers prey on. They exploit tweens' wish to be grown up and to be recognized as the independent-thinking, self-styling geniuses they feel they really are.

It may seem condescending to think my kids can't screen out all the consumerist noise. But things are different now. Two-thirds of our economy is based on consumer spending, and advertisers are much more sophisticated today in their tactics.

When I was a kid, Wonder Bread's laughable claim was that it "helps build strong bodies 12 ways." Today kids don't have a chance to roll their eyes. Child psychologists working for marketers analyze children's artwork and dreams (a practice that some mental-health professionals are urging the American Psychological Association to denounce). They know that infants as young as 6 months old can visualize logos, and brand loyalty can be established by 2 years of age, according to the Media Awareness Network.

In the mall that day, I was good. I didn't say, "hideous temple of greed," or "those rolling herds of swine are trying to fill the voids in their souls with transfats and plastic."

Suddenly, suspiciously, my son led me to the Lindt chocolate store where a clerk handed us free truffles.

"The mall's not so bad," I said, dopily licking the foil wrapper.

"I knew you'd like it," he said.