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Here's a trend that could cost parents a lot of dough

RECENTLY I read another alarming trend story. This one happened to be in USA Today, the newspaper that does alarming trend stories better than any other around.

The headline alone - "More parents leave school shopping to the kids" - was a heart-stopper, at least to me.

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And so was this paragraph (the story's "nut graph," as we in the biz call it): "This emerging trend of tweens, 8- to 12-year-olds, doing at least some of their back-to-school shopping without parents in tow is about a new world shopping order."

And here I hadn't even adjusted to the old world shopping order.

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Anyway, I learned that these "tweens" aren't going school shopping alone. They are going with friends, or older siblings.

The idea of mom or dad dragging their whiney pre-teens on a forced march through the mall for school stuff - and the requisite blow-ups that occur when the parents push for clothes and supplies the kid thinks will consign him to Dork Hell - is apparently disappearing in a growing number of households.

As I read this, I tried to picture my own 12-year-old loose in the mall with a fistful of $20 bills in his sweaty little hand, my admonition to "Get what you need for school and keep it reasonable" still ringing in his ears.

And, of course, the image made me shudder violently.

First, I imagined the kid and his friends beginning their shopping trip with a prolonged visit to the food court, which would soon turn into something resembling a Viking feast and burn a couple of $20s right there.

Then the whole posse would make the obligatory stops at the skateboard store, the CD store and the sunglasses store.

After that, the kid probably wouldn't have enough cash left for a Magic Marker.

No, it seems to me a parent would be nuts to let a tween go school-shopping by himself.

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Unless you have a tween who's extraordinarily mature for his or her age. Like with the maturity level of, oh, Winston Churchill.

It would also help if the kid had Churchill's fashion sense. Because otherwise the kid could come back looking like something off the cover of Today's Thug.

To get another opinion on this whole thing, I called Beverly Celotta, a licensed clinical psychologist in Darnestown, Montgomery County, who has worked with children and their parents for more than 30 years.

And Celotta - who sounded reasonable enough, not like she'd just beamed down from another planet - didn't think the notion of tweens doing their own school shopping was so nuts at all.

In fact, she thought parents could use these kid-alone shopping trips as "teachable moments."

Oh, she didn't think 8- and 9- and 10-year-olds should be wandering around the malls by themselves and buying their own school stuff.

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But 11- and 12-year-olds with some level of common sense, well, that's different.

"If a child has demonstrated that [he or she is] fairly reasonable, and there are not constant arguments about clothes . . . [then] it's reasonable to sit down and talk about clothes that are needed for school, price range and criteria for clothes," Celotta said.

And for the kid to go shop for those clothes - by himself or herself.

By "criteria for clothes," Celotta said she meant how low pants can hang off the waist, how much midriff can show, how tight the clothes can be, etc.

"They should not be sent into a store to be absolutely free to get what they want," she said.

And the kid has to know, added Celotta, "that if anything comes home that's over the line, then that thing will be returned."

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A get-up that looks like it came from the Dominatrix Hut - I think that would be over the line with most parents.

In any event, it was at this point in the conversation that I expressed to Celotta my surprise that she was OK with the notion of any tweens doing their own school shopping.

I did not, however, share with her the vision of my own 12-year-old careening through Towson Town Center with his pals, blowing through money like a drunken sailor on his first shore leave.

Nor did I tell her that I would probably be hyperventilating by the time I picked him up and discovered the Green Day CDs, Oakley shades and half-dozen skateboard T-shirts in his shopping bags, instead of the polo shirts, khaki pants and loose-leaf binders I expected.

"I have a basic philosophy," said Celotta, "that you give a child a little bit of rope at a time, and if they use it well, you give them some more rope.

"And if they don't use it well, you pull the rope in."

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I'd be worried about the rope strangling me before school even started.


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