When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s my parents didn’t have a whole lot of money. We were far from destitute, but when Dad was made redundant from Telecom he helped make ends meet by growing our own food in the vegie garden. Mum, a farm girl who made her own wedding dress, saved money by designing and making school uniforms for my brother and I.
They did a magnificent job, and if either of them drank, smoked or gambled, we could well have ended up living off handouts from The Smith Family at some point, but as it was, Dad’s Newstart was just enough to pay the bills and Mum’s Family Allowance went into a savings account, which we used for a once-a-year holiday in a caravan park somewhere exotic like Frankston, Toowoomba or Muswellbrook.
To keep us happy at Christmas, the Family Allowance fund also afforded my brother and I one brand-name item of clothing a year. I always chose an item of surfwear with as many tags on the inside as possible so I could cut them off and sew them onto other items of clothing Mum had made. One year I ended up sporting a pair of faux Billabong school shorts all the way to June before one of the other kids at school helpfully pointed out the fact I’d sewed the label on upside down.
Times weren’t always tough though, so it did shock me a little that when our family finances got a little better and we could afford a holiday to Fiji, mum still insisted on making us all matching purple parachute silk tracksuits. She and Dad thought they were really comfortable on the plane, but from a distance we looked as if Prince had gone skydiving and landed haphazardly on the Armenian Special Olympics team.
I phoned mum the other day and asked her why she still insisted on making clothes for us, even after money stopped being such an issue. I also grilled her on her one-brand-named-item-of-clothing-per-year policy.
Me: Hey Mum, do you remember how when we were little, you used to make our clothes? I always thought it was because we were poor, but it kind of dawned on me that we went on a holiday to Fiji once, so we can’t have been that poor all the time. Was it because we were poor, or because you liked making clothes?
Mum: A bit of both. I liked making clothes though.
Me: Do you still make your clothes?
Mum: No, I buy them from the internet.
Me: You buy them from the internet?
Me: You’re not even on Facebook.
Mum: I’m not on Facebook because I don’t want to see what you get up to.
Me: Fair enough.
Mum: We were never into fashion trends anyway.
Me: Well, YOU weren’t. I was. I desperately wanted a Billabong hat in grade six and you wouldn’t let me have one. Why?
Mum: As a parent you have to learn to say ‘no’ sometimes. You can’t just buy your kids everything. And we didn’t have much money, so $20 was a lot for a hat in 1991.
Me: What if I was getting bullied for not having the right hat and I had to spend every lunch time in the library? Would you have bought the hat if you knew it would stop me getting beaten up?
Me: That’s cruel. I’m pretty sure that’s against the Geneva Convention.
Mum: It’s like the lollies at the supermarket checkout. You have to learn to say ‘no’ there too.
Me: No one ever got beaten up for not having lollies in the supermarket checkout. What if I was, like, getting bashed every day at school and all you had to do to save me was buy a hat?
Mum: I wouldn’t buy you the hat, but I would talk to the school and explain there was a bullying problem.
Me: I would have been beaten up by the librarian herself if you did that.
Mum: You’ll understand one day.
Me: No I won’t. I’m buying my kid the hat. And if it’s sunny one day and you’re a Grandma and the sun is hurting your eyes, and you need a hat, I won’t let you wear it.
Mum: Love you.
Me: Love you too. Thanks Mum, bye.
I was troubled after that conversation. A few months ago when I’d told mum I had written a book about trying to become the ultimate hipster, and that part of the journey was getting a tattoo, her first reaction was, “are you doing this because we didn’t let you get an undercut in grade nine?” … So clearly there was some fashion remorse there. But she seemed pretty firm on the no brands policy.
I got engaged a month ago and, while Rebecca and I aren’t planning the pitter-patter of little feet for a good few years yet, it had me wondering what my fashion policy would be when they did finally arrive.
Not trusting Mum’s advice, I decided to ask Lily Amorous, who, unlike Mum, is a post graduate clinically trained psychologist (who specialises in bullying and trauma).
Me: Hey Lily, do kids get bullied about things like not having the latest shoes?
Lily: Yes, but shoes are just the content of the bullying. Bullying is about the abuse of power dynamics. It’s not about shoes. Bullies will always find a point of ‘difference’ to target.
Me: OK, so if a parent found out it was happening, what should they do?
Lily: Parents need to listen and talk to their child, and reaffirm that the bullying is not their fault. Role playing some effective strategies for dealing with the bullying would be useful, and I would encourage parents to communicate with schools about the issue, so that it can be addressed there also.
Me: So Mum was right?
Me: Damn. So where should parents draw the line between bowing to every trend that comes along and helping their kids ‘fit in’ by having the right stuff?
Lily: I think this is really a question for each parent to work out for themselves. As an independent issue, I would encourage parents to work with their children to develop self-identity and esteem on a level that involves healthy values and connections with others that does not revolve around materialistic objects or possessions. This could also help the child be resilient against the effects of bullying.
Me: Mum said it was comparable to kids wanting lollies at the supermarket checkout – give them some and they’ll just keep wanting more. I said I thought being bullied over a pair of shoes, was a bigger deal than that. What do you think?
Lily: I think bullying is a separate issue to kids wanting lollies at the counter. Again – it’s about looking at the process, not the content.
Me: In your face Mum, take that.
Lily: I wouldn’t quite put it that way.
Me: No, let’s put it that way.
Matt Granfield was a newspaper reporter once upon a time, but gave it up when he realised there were more exciting things to write about than under-12s soccer finals. These days Matt is a senior contributor for a number of Australian publications and his first book – a satirical look at popular culture called HipsterMattic – was released on October 31.
Did you have the right “stuff” growing up? Did your parents say yes easily?