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5 Facts About Kids' Social Lives

Having Cool Stuff Really Does Matter

It's just a fact: Human beings are social animals, and we influence each other's attitudes and ideas. There's a reason American moms stopped driving station wagons and started buying minivans, and then stopped driving minivans and bought SUVs -- and it's not because we all suddenly needed four-wheel drive. But take this ordinary human tendency to be a copycat, multiply it by an order of magnitude, and what you'll get is the typical American kid.

When her daughter was in sixth grade, Anna Davis of Huntsville, AL, got a crash course in how image-consciousness works: "Julie kept saying, 'I need a North Face jacket and some Wallabees,' and I kept saying, 'Well, maybe for Christmas.' She continued to beg, 'Everybody has them but me!' and I continued to put her off. Then I went to her school's fall festival, and my mouth dropped. It was true: Everybody but Julie was sporting those two items."

Children are highly susceptible to advertising, but ads aren't the only explanation for this kind of groupthink. When a popular kid chooses a certain style of clothing, or adopts an interest in some aspect of popular culture, the other kids give it a closer look. And what they find (surprise!) is they really like it, too. Wearing the right shirt, renting the right movie, downloading the right music, bringing the right snacks to practice -- it all makes kids feel more a part of the crowd.

For parents, the issue is more complicated. We want our kids to fit in and feel comfortable, but this loot can get really expensive. Plus, do we really want them believing they can buy their way into social acceptance? To acknowledge a child's urgent need to belong without breaking the bank or completely backing down from your beliefs, Lagattuta recommends compromising: Buy the "cool" version of frequently worn items -- like shoes and jackets -- but the discount brand of everything else. With older children, Lagattuta suggests giving kids a spending limit for back-to-school shopping: "They can decide whether they want to blow the budget on a few high-priced items, lots of low-priced items, or a mix."