Lately I’ve been thinking again about the anatomy of cool, the pressure that kids feel to be cool (i.e. popular), and how that status is most often given to those who dress well and look good.
Strangely, I actually feel lucky that my kids are growing up now and not back in the 80’s when I was a teenager. I could be wrong, but it seems like “cool” was a little more tightly defined and little less inclusive back then compared to now. Perhaps thanks in part to YouTube and reality TV, “cool” in the 10’s seems to be much less narrowly defined these days. Sure, our kids are still worried about being cool and our culture is still celebrity-obsessed, but the definition of “cool” and “celebrity” has broadened in some respects.
Maybe the ball started rolling in 1984 with the movie Revenge of the Nerds, but it wasn’t until the dot-com boom of the 90‘s that mega-nerds Bill Gates and Steve Jobs truly redefined cool. (Think “geek squad” and “genius bar”. ) Then there’s the formerly uncool classically-trained musicians of yesteryear who are successfully making orchestra look cooler than ever. (Don’t believe me? Check out this, this, and this.) From computers to orchestra to crocheting, things that were previously uncool are now as widely accepted as legitimately cool.
Also, it seems like variety rather than sameness has become super cool. Many teens today refuse the notion that there is a “right” way to look or act in order to be cool. The almost manic push in our country to embrace diversity has created many unseen advantages.
But even if the circle of cool really is widening, the demand for “coolness” can still be relentless for kids. Personally, I’ve made a conscious effort not to encourage my children to seek popularity through their clothing and looks. (This, coming from a former Homecoming Princess.) Sure, I think it’s important for them look their best and feel good about themselves, but more than anything I want them to be smart, kind, creative, and honest. If that wins them popularity, so be it, but I will not be the mom who encourages my kids to seek popularity through clothing choices. Frankly, I think it’s shallow.
I suppose you could argue that beauty and fashion are a hobby for some people just like technology, music, gardening, or biking is for others. That’s fair. But I also think it’s fair to say that mothers who dish out a lot of money for their kids to buy “cool” clothing just so they will fit in may be inadvertently sending their kids (and the kids around them) the wrong message. If we all know what the shallow definition of cool and popular “looks” like, then maybe we could work together to tone down that message by spending less time and money trying to make our kids look “cool” and more of our time and money helping them find personal satisfaction in working hard, getting good grades, improving their talents, serving people in need, and celebrating their own unique brand of “cool.”
My ultimate dream (and I know this is totally pie-in-the-sky) defines the cool and popular crowd as the nicest and most accepting, not the best dressed or best looking. The unfortunate but often true stereotype about the cool and popular crowd is that they aren’t always the most kind and accepting, and it’s just sad when those kinds of people are popular. I love the idea of a movement to redefine cool and popular just like Dove is trying to redefine beauty. I would make Smart and Good the Homecoming King and Queen every time.
Yes, I know it’s a free country and people can wear whatever they want, and I also acknowledge that dressing well and looking good doesn’t necessarily mean you are shallow and heartless. I guess I’m just trying to make the point that as parents, we have a lot of influence over how our children value themselves and others, and I would hope that we’re working as a team to cultivate the same message:
More than clothing, looks, weight, skin color, or any other superficial characteristic, kindness and acceptance of ourselves and others is way cool.
QUESTION: What kind of “cool” kids are you raising? How do you keep them grounded?
CHALLENGE: Have a discussion with your kids about what they think it means to be cool.
Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net