I have consumed a lot of cups of burnt coffee and Pepperidge Farm cookies at parents meetings in discussions of adopting uniforms as a way of slowing the Clothes Race. These gatherings start well enough. Heads nod as some of the excesses of the commercial and competitive '80s are cited: the $200 birthday party at L'Academie de Cuisine where kids complain they're tired of quiche, the $500 Mary McFadden party dress for dancing school, the $200 etiquette classes where kids go to learn the manners privilege has led them to believe they do not need.
With kids arriving for class in $200 worth of designer clothes, we all agree things have gone too far. Uniforms are raised as one solution. But before long, one parent pipes up about the danger to young egos of such conformity, the sense of individuality that will be lost. Soon, someone else chimes in about the importance of developing taste, a sense of style and an ability to comparison shop. Then comes the stern lecture from the parent who believes that having to select and lay out clothes for school in the morning builds character.
When the discussion gets around to how much is spent in this development of taste and character, adults with straight faces talk about the importance of seam allowances and deep hems which can be let out. The discussion dies when inevitably one parent rises to say how he doesn't begrudge paying a little more for quality in his child's clothes. Those of us who do begrudge spending a little more for quality drain our Styrofoam cups and go home.
I'm not sure uniforms are the answer anyway. It's not that I'm against forcing kids to run around in blue serge looking like prison wardens or stifling individuality as it is expressed in $100 jean jackets. But uniforms just get at one corner of the problem that is ruining kids today, and that's indulgent parents. It's as if the biological clock of the having-it-all-generation tolled, and the yearning for foreign cars and extra-virgin olive oil gave way to pint-size status symbols in French cotton, imported strollers and exclusive schools.
The only way to opt out of the commercial and competitive Child Wars, short of moving to a very small town in Minnesota, is to find a school that is going to work actively against the prevailing materialistic norm. Choosing a school first time around I went for the one with the highest concentration of National Merit Finalists, acceptances at top colleges and a large endowment. I should have known what a mistake this fine school was going to be when one of the fathers waiting with his child for play group, the most treacherous part of the admissions process, revealed, between last-minute instructions to his child on how to handle the finger-puppet competition, how he had gotten his congressman to write a letter of recommendation extolling Jason's clever way with Lego. There's no sense going to a school like this unless you are going to sign on to the ethic: buy the designer clothes, sign up for Miss Shippen's dancing school, throw the catered birthday parties.
Choosing a school this time around, I eschewed the usual indicators and infiltrated PTA meetings. I settled on the school where the parents dressed down, the parking lot had a positive Chevy-to-Audi ratio, the refreshment was cheap jug wine and the biggest problem was how to let everybody on the sports teams who was willing to show up for practice. There isn't a school uniform, but there is a dress code and teachers who actively rail against materialism. One hundred and fifty dollars bought an acceptable back-to-school wardrobe with one midweek load of laundry. You can wear the same sweater three times a week and no one notices. But I still wouldn't rule out Minnesota. -- Margaret B. Carlson -- is acting manager editor of The New Republic.