I have it on good authority that a child’s academic and creative achievements are directly related to what their parents wear.
It’s a fact. And it’s simple: A child’s success rate and their parents’ sense of style are exactly inversely proportional. Show me any high school senior with sky-high ACT scores and a dazzling portfolio of creative work, and I’ll show you a parent with sensible shoes, ill-fitting slacks, a sweatshirt that should never be worn outside the garage – but often is – and a do-it-yourself haircut.
Is the mom or dad beaming? Yes. Is the child humiliated? Oh yes. And does that add up to inspired and responsible parenting? EXACTLY YES.
When I say I have this on good authority, I mean my own. I mean the authority vested in me by a father, who, when he came home from work as the school principal to a house full of daughters who were still fighting over who’d borrowed who’s sweater-nail polish-curling iron that morning, he – my father – immediately changed out of his suit and tie and into boxer shorts, a white-ish v-neck t-shirt, a thin blue knee-length bathrobe, and shower thongs. This was his ensemble by 5:30 p.m. every weeknight of my growing-up life. It happened right at the time of day when some young people might call a friend to come over – homework’s mostly done, dinner’s not quite ready, so a person might call up J.J., from down the street, to come play Barbies, or whatever. Except there’s Dad. Like a thrift shop underwear clearance ad spread out on the recliner, feet way up comfy on the footrest, flexing the shower thongs back and forth. Back and forth. Making clear that “comfort” was a family value but “pedicure” was not.
I speak from the power vested in me by the neighbor lady, Sylvia, J.J’s mom, who was cooler than most moms because Sylvia was divorced and Sylvia drove a conversion van with floor-to-ceiling shag carpeting, but she was still a mom, and when she got together with my mom and the rest of the neighbor ladies to help each other out with the yard work, it’s no joke about “it takes a village” because the combined tableau of Sylvia in cutoffs and a homemade halter top, and my mom* in cutoffs and a tank top, and Mrs. Schafer in a swimsuit with a skort attached, all of them weeding the yard together, my yard, the front yard, across the street from a house of boys, who we sometimes hoped would come outside (J.J. and I hoped, often, as we roller-skated up and down and up and down the driveway) but not today. Please, God, not now, not with these women – this village, our mothers – baring their thighs and armpits in the cul-de-sac’s beating, bleaching sun.
Such moments force a young person to dig deep. They push a tender mind to think outside the cul-de-sac.
And as a result, instead of having J.J. over to waste the night playing Barbies or a board game, a girl might retreat to her room and lock the door and cut off the long sleeves of a silky pink nightgown and repurpose them into matching sarongs for Malibu Barbie and Malibu Skipper. And give them short shag haircuts, as well, and pierce their ears with straight pins – the points stuck in at just the right angles so as not to poke through the soft plastic scalps – and voila. The thrill of creation, of creating.
And when J.J. sees those works of art, later, she loves them, and word gets out to the rest of the girls in the neighborhood, and orders are placed, and more nightgowns are sacrificed, more Barbies coutured, and a lifelong love of style and scissors and art and capitalism is born.
Humiliation works like a fixative. Under pleasant circumstances, any child can memorize the state capitols well enough to pass a test. But then it’s gone. It doesn’t stick. Pleasant circumstances are a sieve. Give a child that same task as the only refuge from a church picnic where his particular nuclear family has chosen to wear matching t-shirts with wordplay rhyming the family name with something special for everyone – you know, like, Sean Fee, Fantastic And Free; Diane Fee, Say It With Glee; Scott Fee, The Best You’ll See –
and by God, that child will feel a strong urge to study for Monday’s quiz. And he will retreat to the safety of the family station wagon, foregoing Frisbee and potato salad and group photos in favor of memorizing Albany-Annapolis-Atlanta-Augusta-Austin. And those cities will never leave his brain because they’re fused with the memory of a very red shirt in a very public park, where there were girls across the way playing tetherball, oh please look, oh no please don’t, please see me here in the station wagon NO PLEASE DON’T Springfield-St. Paul-Tallahassee-Topeka-Trenton.
Fixed. Fused. And ready for recall on every standardized test for the rest of that child’s high-achieving life.
You see, then, why I fear for today’s children when I witness parents in parks and on the streets and in our schools dressed in the style of the day. So contemporary. So coordinated. So completely dismissive of the toxins they’re spilling into the tender eyes of their young.
I see well-toned, lightly spray-tanned moms in tasteful maxi-dresses that float behind the strollers they push downtown to the Children’s Museum. I see dads in fitted t-shirts that have not pit stains or ragged collars, but the word “Townie” printed on the front and “56001” on the back, which means not only his shirt stylish, but he bought it at Tune Town which means he supports the local arts scene, and his belly is not bulging but instead is trim and appears to ripple when the wind at the park blows the shirt back against him. And his jeans are not cutoffs, they’re not Sansabelt golf shorts, they’re jeans, they’re just fine, they give a son or daughter nothing to fear. Nothing to cringe about. No need to hide inside a station wagon. Those jeans might, in fact, be something an older child would aspire to wear themselves.
To dress like Dad.
Thirty years ago? Unthinkable. Today? You see the problem.
Cool dads, hot moms, what you’re doing is fine when the children are young and serve mainly as accessories. Like in a cute gray Beatles onesie to match your Townie shirt, or in a little baby aqua sundress that color-blocks against your high-low orange wrap skirt. That’s fine. For now.
But science doesn’t know, yet, exactly when children switch from not-noticing to noticing. And by then it might be too late, and they might have sized you up and thought, my dad looks fantastic today! My mom looks pretty sharp! I think I’d like to be like them, no need to think for myself, no need for angst or art or replacing the bulbs in my room with black-lights to match my soul or yearning or revenge or a master of fine arts degree. No. Because all is well. I’m happy to be part of any family photo with this group, because even if Mom says we’re all wearing matching t-shirts, they’ll probably be awesome clingy shirts from Hollister.
Cool dads, hot moms, you won’t see that moment coming, but it will come, and if you’re not ready, you’ll blow it. No creativity. No achievement. No next generation of visionaries to ensure great poetry and Ph.Ds and winning trivia teams in our nation’s future.
Change is difficult. For now, wear the maxi-dress if you must. But mom it up when you’re with the kids. Get it a little bit wrong. The “retro” piece, the 1970s look, go all out – go all the way with frosty shadow, frosty lips, drop your garbage all over the park as was done back in the day. Force the kids to trail behind you, picking up your empty bottles and your Virginia Slims butts. Teach them environmentalism in a hands-on way no child will never forget.
Insist on wearing a crafty sliced-up 1980s MTV t-shirt? Fine. But bring the craft supplies to the park in a rubber tub. And play Rick Springfield on a boom box. Loud. I don’t know what that might yield, it’s your child, I don’t know what they’re capable of achieving. I just want you to stop holding them back.
As I stand here before you, sharing this crucial truth, my own son who’s seventeen is away at a fancy summer camp studying philosophy and literature. And while he appears to have no time to call home and say hello, his Twitter feed tells us he’s loving every minute of Proust and Nietzsche and Austen. Loving it in the way a seventeen-year-old loves, with just enough obscenity that his parents will read his tweets, but will not re-tweet them. We have no choice but to stand back and beam. We are very proud.
And I know, without a doubt, exactly how it happened.
For I, too, in my day, was a young mom at the park. I too pushed a stroller and later pulled a wagon and later trotted along side a trike up and down Front Street and to Sibley Park and Rasmussen Nature Center and all the hot mom hot spots. Except, I did it right.
Kid and me circa 1997.
I did it in overalls, Birkenstocks, a hooded sweatshirt atop a baggy t-shirt which may or may not have been slit down the sides for nursing several years prior, which I may or may not have remembered when the walk got warm and I pulled the sweatshirt off.
And I wore a hat.
Now this is a hat.
Not an ironic trucker hat, not an adorable hand-crocheted silk beret – I mean a worn and misshapen gray baseball hat to cover my un-coiffed hair. A hat that said, I might own a comb, and I might be in public, but foremost, at this moment, I am a mom.
Sure, I dressed appropriately for work, for social time with grownups. And you can, too. But for the children, and all the promise they hold, I ask you to be mindful of what a well-chosen, bad, bad outfit today can achieve tomorrow.
This is what I got last week when I asked kid at fancy camp for proof he’s getting fed.
You’ll see for yourself when your child is nearly grown, and he or she is nailing the standardized tests, acing the AP courses, graduating with honors. You will show up at the ceremony wearing the same skort you wore to mow the lawn that morning, and the free t-shirt you got when you ran a 5K a decade ago – perhaps with a sweater vest on top, to class things up – and when your child’s name is called, you will clap at slightly the wrong time. You will cheer a bit too loud. You will stand tall in your vest, in your skort. And you’ll say to the world, to your community, and to your flinching child:
You are so, SO welcome.
Many thanks to Elaine Hardwick for inviting me to share this piece at the inaugural Picnic in the Park show July 23, 2013. Actually she asked for a poem. So then I went to a park, to get inspired to write a poem, and I saw a bunch of supercute moms. Impeccably dressed moms. Hotly coiffed moms. And I just thought, you know, this has got to stop.
*DISCLAIMER: If my mom actually ever wore cutoffs and a tank top to do yard work in the 1970s, she looked fantastic. She still does.