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Parenting Traps

Making allowances

Can you clothe a growing teen without breaking the bank – or ruining your relationship?

By Barbara Pattison
July 11, 2010

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My daughter, Annie, is 13 going on 30, and she loves to shop. Surprised? Hardly. Anyone who has a teen daughter in the house probably has experienced the Saturday afternoon mall-rat race.

Middle school chic calls for frequent excursions to places like Abercrombie and PacSun, where the music is loud and the perfume louder. When I balk at the price for ripped jeans or T-shirts that are walking advertisements, I get The Stare. That’s the look that says I will never understand. But I do. I understand that she wants to look cool, that she wants to fit in, that she wants to feel great. But fifty bucks for raggedy jeans? I often sigh, then shell out.

According to national estimates from the US Department of Agriculture, the annual clothing expenditure in 2009 for a 12- to 14-year-old was anywhere from $680 to $1,150, depending on income. It was even higher for the 15- to 17-year-old set – $720 to $1,260. And our solidly middle-class family falls on the high end of the spectrum.

Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College and the author of Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, points out that “a lot of very expensive products are now marketed to young kids.” For many parents, there are “conflicts over their ability – or their desire – to pay for them.” Schor, who has a 14-year-old daughter and a son in college, notes that in years past, parents and marketers aligned to decide what was appropriate for kids. “Now it’s the marketers and the kids aligned against the parents.”

But Schor says parents don’t have to play that game. “One thing you can do is set an amount of money for various categories, whether it’s apparel or whatever. Decide what you and your child think is a fair amount, and let kids make decisions within that amount.” She says it helps them understand how expensive things can be. And if you choose to go the allowance route, don’t set it too low, “or you’re going to end up paying for things anyway.”

I admit I’m too lax about spending (my budgeting is, shall we say, flexible), but Annie is ready to work when she’s old enough. I’m just not sure she’ll follow in Mom’s footsteps. My teen counter job at McDonald’s? More likely the counter at Forever 21. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

How much do you spend on your child’s clothing?