Recently I was talking with a nanny who was telling me why the kids she cares for ended up with Sesame Street shoes. She was apologetic in explaining it: It was all they had left! They were on clearance, in their size, so we had to make do!
Meanwhile, she full knows my kids are nearly always in head-to-toe character-branded nonsense: My Little Pony Crocs, Minecraft and Five Nights at Freddy's and Star Wars T-shirts, Spider-Man and Power Rangers hoodies, plus assorted accessories. As if I would be judging her.
When I grew up, I wasn't allowed to wear characters. Well, that's too strong, but my mother "didn't care" for such fashion choices, and I was persuadable, so I had my Wonder Woman Underoos to wear in private but very demure and girly clothing to wear above.
Before I had children (and this is possibly the idealistic realm in which my nanny friend resides), I assumed their clothing would be similarly character-neutral. Not for me the Thomas the Train shirts and Elmo hats and Caillou sandals (I'm just making things up now). I eschewed even hand-me-downs and gifts that featured recognizable brands. My kids would wear cute things that wouldn't date them in photographs to a particular cultural period, clothing that was bright and whimsical and classically childlike.
And so it went…until my first child developed opinions.
The first purchases, at about age four, I was able to squirrel away and hide in the back of Mikko's drawers and cubbies. The Mater shirt and Lightning McQueen cap? He wasn't even a big Cars fan! Why on earth did he pick those things out? I continued to offer him other clothing to wear, and he forgot to ask for them. I thought I was safe.
Then he wanted to choose his own shoes, and he'd long decided that Crocs were his shoe of choice. And he wanted them to light up, and be red. So Lightning McQueen was again the favored choice. People we met would ask him if he loved Cars, and he'd look at them blankly, then show them how his shoes worked. I thought we were still in the clear.
His dad became a Seahawks fan and found him his own jersey at the thrift store. Suddenly my cute little boy was wearing a football jersey and camo pants everywhere we went. That wasn't my idea of what looks adorable on kids. But…well…he blends in in Seattle. Then he found his Spider-Man hoodie at another thrift store, and then he cottoned to the existence of theme t-shirts after relatives gifted him some Star Wars ones and his dad unearthed some vintage specimens. Furthermore, if he received a free participation t-shirt for any occasion, that was his new favorite for weeks. He loved t-shirts with branding on them, and wasn't particular about which kind. Even the Star Wars ones — people would assume he was a huge fan, and he would tell them he just liked the style.
Once we passed by the novelty t-shirt rack in Target, we were sunk. Over time, through his allowance and through various holiday presents, other favored shirts have joined his and his younger brother's collections: Minecraft, Dan TDM from YouTube, various video games, My Little Pony, and other branded delights. Mikko and Alrik are so giddy about them, wearing them nearly exclusively, that I've given up my right to be grumpy about it.
You see, I had to rethink my objection to branded items. I'm sure there was something noble in there somewhere about anti-consumerism and letting children be children and not walking billboards, but mostly it was, I came to realize, vanity. It was showing other moms (and nannies, apparently) that I was cool, and above such crass displays of capitalism. It was glomming on to my own mother's ideals of raising picture-worthy children, no matter what the children thought of such matters.
I don't blame my mom or the aforementioned nanny for making (or wanting to make) different choices, but I came to the conclusion that refusing to let my children love what they love wasn't doing any of us any good. They wouldn't grow up feeling relieved I had kept them from looking silly; they would have vague memories of resenting that they couldn't express themselves the way they wanted to. I should know, because I know how it felt to be denied. I remember watching my other friends play with the popular toys and wear the popular theme t-shirts and feeling left out, and feeling like my parents weren't entering into the joy of what interested me and made me happy. (For the record, that was My Little Pony and Rainbow Brite and Strawberry Shortcake. To their credit, they loaded me up with Cabbage Patch Kids.)
As an adult, if I'd looked back on umpteen photographs of myself in Punky Brewster shirts, I'd have just thought it was charmingly vintage, not ridiculous. It's somehow easy to lose perspective as a parent that your perceptions of the current trends are not your child's. For them, it's not the newest stupid fad. For them, it's the stuff of their childhood, the glue of common experiences with their peers, the memories they'll look back on fondly and try to
So I've given up the war against branding and entered into the fun of it with them. I helped Alrik dye his hair (temporarily) blue a la his YouTube hero, Sam designed Minecraft and Five Nights at Freddy's piñatas for the boys' birthdays, and we let family members and friends know it was all right — even encouraged — to get them presents that fit their current interests. When it comes time for formal portraits, out come my preferred clothing options. Well, mostly.
But the rest of the time, they choose their clothes, their interests, and their look. It's their body, their childhood, their joy, their choice.