Thursday, July 12, 2007

Twixt 8 and 12, the Tween

Published: July 12, 2007


At dinner the other night, my nine-year-old daughter asked me what the greatest shopping city in the world is. I confess I was not ready for that one. Vague memories of nightmare hours at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, stirred. But I decided to go with something more cosmopolitan.

"Hong Kong, I guess."

"Really?" she shot back. "That's fascinating. I had always heard it was between Paris and New York."

It is not often that I say something to my daughter that qualifies as fascinating. Still, the "always" was ominous. I wondered how long the small person opposite me had been pondering this weighty issue and who her source was on shopping heaven. "That's what my friends say," she told me.

Could she and Maggie and Sophia and the rest of them really be sitting around discussing the relative merits of London, Tokyo and Moscow for chocolate-sundae lip balm or purplish-pinkish nail polish or the latest cellphone model? Yes, they could.

I am the proud father of a "tween." Tweens, falling roughly into the 8-12 age group, used to be called pre-teens. They are now in a generational category of their own in part because that gives retailers a clearer target, but also because their preternatural state - between childhood and all-knowingness - demands it.

Tweens are worth studying. They are the future. In fact, they are also the present. The U.S. military and their families are at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the rest of America is shopping or watching the Disney Channel or dreaming of becoming American idols.

There is a wider phenomenon of which tweens are a part. It is called "age compression" - roughly the cramming of experience into ever younger human vessels, creating an eerie disconnect between the outer child and the inner sophisticate. Marketers have an acronym for this, "KGOY," which stand for "kids getting older younger."

KGOY represents opportunity, of course. The U.S. apparel market for tween girls is now worth upward of $11 billion.

Tweens are discerning consumers. They think a lot about what they are going to wear, whether their outfit matches their peach-sparkle nail polish, how clothes sit with a teal-colored cellphone ("Can you believe Mom didn't know what color teal is?"), what kind of sushi they are going to eat, and what to read after books like "30 Guys in 30 Days."

What should be made of all this? It is plausible to take a dark view, seeing in the spread of "tweendom" the commercial exploitation of young girls (and to a lesser extent boys), their corrupting transformation into shop-until-you-drop mini-citizens, and their premature sexualization.

Sharon Lamb, a child psychologist and the co-author of "Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes," sent me an e-mail saying, "Tween is a word made up by marketers in order to sell teen items to younger and younger girls." She added: "Shopping itself is sold as a quintessential girl activity before girls even have an allowance to spend."

I cannot argue with that, although tween is also a term that seems to capture the psychological tension of late childhood in the Internet age. Moreover, the sophistication of tweens is not confined to shopping.

Another thing my daughter said to me recently was that we should buy a "high bird." I eventually worked out she meant a "hybrid." We needed one, she explained, because the world is getting warmer, ice caps are melting, and too many cars in America are belching heat-trapping gases.

Right. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was smart in declaring that the fight against global warming will be his first priority, just as Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor of California, has been smart in leading a campaign against greenhouse gases. Green is sexy. Any tween will tell you that - and they will be voting within a decade.

It is encouraging that the tween generation has taken global warming, as well as global shopping, to heart. The world is knit ever closer. It is itself in a "tween" state - poised between hope and menace.

Tweens keep you on your toes, which is important. When I suggested to mine the other day that she should brush her teeth, she retorted that George Washington had very bad teeth. But, I noted, the girls in "Twist" and other magazines for tweens, as well as the girls on Disney channel, all have white teeth.

"You want me to take them as a model rather than George Washington?" she asked.

There is hope out there in tween city.