Cool comes from within

Reading Time: 7 minutes


If you could give your child the gift of cool, you surely would, because cool kids have more fun. They’re confident and relaxed. They’re leaders, not followers. They charm the teachers. And they never get bullied at school, or teased in PE class. It may not be fair, but there’s no doubt that, all round, life is sweeter for cool kids.

The question is, can you make your child cool? Is it something you can teach, like nice manners or joined-up writing? Can certain clothes make you cool: if you dress your son in ultra-cool Rag&Bone jeans, will he become cool, or would he still be just an ordinary little boy wearing rather expensive trousers? 

Irma Zandl is a world-expert on cool, discussing cool is what she does for a living. Ms Zandl is a cool-hunter. She invented the term “alpha consumer”, and predicted the rise of hip-hop culture in the Eighties. As the boss of a Manhattan trend-analysis company, she spends her life spotting trends.

“Cool is a subject that’s been very much on our radar of late,” says Ms Zandl. She tracks this back to the rise of Angelina Jolie and her brood, most especially Maddox. “Angelina and Maddox are establishing the new criterion of cool for both parents and children. For this new generation, cool kids sport Mohawks, wear camouflage, are multicultural and adventurous world travellers, and aren’t necessarily defined by ‘cute’ so much as by their presence, attitude and intelligence.

“To be a cool kid, it helps to have a cool mother who so obviously lives by her own rules, from having her pick of men to flying her own plane, to adopting kids, to being feted by world leaders. Part of what makes children like Maddox cool is the exposure he gets to so many global issues and having a parental role-model who so clearly marches to the beat of her own drum.”

But to be truly cool, is it necessary to have parents like Angelina and Brad? No. Sometimes a cool kid just appears in an ordinary, non-cool family – in the same way that average parents can produce a child with astonishing beauty, or a prodigious musical talent.

But at what point does good cool become bad cool? Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were cool. And look what happened to them.

It’s a point that concerns social scientists at British Columbia University. Ian Hansen and his colleagues are studying the essence of cool. They use statistical techniques to tease apart true coolness from “social desirability”, and their findings make interesting reading for any parent who ever wished for their child to be cool. “Cool was not originally about being socially desirable; if anything it was about rejecting dominant notions of social desirability,” says Hansen. “In fact, the ethos of modern coolness owes its genesis to an African-American cultural response to white oppression.”

At its very heart, true cool embodies the character traits of rebellion, irony, muted emotion, unconventionality, thrill-seeking and hedonism. “It’s not clear that parents have much of an interest in raising cool kids,” says Hansen. “They may be more interested in raising socially desirable children, who will often be called cool.”

Socially desirable qualities that are also rated as cool include the more teacher-friendly attributes of confidence, attractiveness, talent, having a drive for success, being trendy and sociable. “If your child can be all these things, perhaps with a dose of unconventionality, then we’d wager he would be unlikely to be beaten up after school,” says Hansen.

But can clothes make your child cool? Social psychologist Sandra Wheatley says, “Like it or not, clothes can help young children feel that they’re OK. Wearing something cool creates a protective layer around you. So if a child’s struggling to fit in, cool designer clothes can fast-track her into being accepted.”

But aren’t cool clothes simply a band aid for your child’s confidence? Surely what you really want is for her to be cool from the inside out. “Cool is a funny word; it means different things to different people,” says Ms Wheatley. “But cool children have this inner glow that makes them stand out from the crowd.”

And without that magical inner glow, ultra cool clothes can look a bit strange. As comedian Eddie Izzard once pointed out, there’s a fine line between looking cool and looking like a complete idiot.

But cool kids never look like idiots. Cool kids can come from Cambodia or Chai Wan, they can wear charity-shop clothes or fancy designer labels, they can live in the suburbs or travel the globe. But whatever they do, they’re always comfortable in their own skin.

“When you peel back the layers of meaning; there’s no doubt that confidence is the key to coolness,” says Wheatley. “Labels can make a difference, but the label that matters most is the one that says: ‘I am loved’. Every child should have that on her T-shirt.

Raising a cool kid

Kids who feel sure of themselves are happier, more independent and more likely to succeed. So it’s no wonder that child-development experts have long offered parents a steady stream of suggestions on how to raise confident kids. But now some of the conventional wisdom is being reconsidered. Child psychologists suggest that promoting self-confidence is a more complex and nuanced process than originally thought. Here is a look at the old ways of thinking and the newer, more enlightened approach.

Old rule: Offer lots of praise.

Experts used to insist that there’s no such thing as too much praise. If your 3-year-old shows you a picture that she’s coloured, give her a hug and tell her it’s great. If the colouring doesn’t represent her best work, at least find something positive to say: “What a gorgeous shade of blue you picked for that. Terrific job!”

New rule: Praise less, but praise more authentically.

Constant compliments can begin to sound hollow, even to a young child. It’s far better to praise your little one only when you mean it. If she has put a lot of effort into something, give her kudos. If she hasn’t, it’s OK to withhold your approval. Praising your child for the effort – not just the end result – teaches her that hard work pays off. That message leads to far more self-confidence than empty congratulations.

Old rule: Criticism kills confidence.

Experts used to believe that criticising a child could damage his developing sense of self. Parents were told, “If you can’t say anything positive, it’s best not to say anything at all.” That advice was eagerly embraced by mums and dads who remembered being unduly criticised in their childhood. But new research finds that there’s a big difference between hurtful criticism and loving truth.

New rule: Offer realistic feedback, delivered with kindness.

Your 5-year-old brings you a thank-you note that she wrote to her grandma, and you notice that it’s just a bunch of hastily scribbled lines. Of course, you shouldn’t say, “That’s awful! Go and do it again”. But it’s fine to tell her, “This isn’t your best effort; I’ve seen you write better notes. Why don’t you try to improve on this?” By giving your child an honest assessment, you’re showing her that your appraisals can be trusted. (Even a preschooler will instinctively know that you’re right.) Honest feedback, delivered gently and with love, will encourage your child to try harder and to do her best.

Old rule: Greater self-expression leads to higher self-esteem.

The ancient adage – “Children should be seen but not heard” – has been turned on its head. Parents have been told that kids should be encouraged to say what’s on their minds. Some even allow their children to say things like “Not now, stupid” and “You’re a butthead”, thinking that it’s OK for kids to express their feelings. But being allowed to say anything (without regard to its impact) makes kids feel too much in control – and that can feed their insecurity.

New rule: Some self-expression is hurtful to others – and to your child.

If you hear your child saying something unkind and nasty, insist that he stop – even if he is reacting from his own anger and pain. Don’t make excuses for him (“He’s behaving like that because his feelings were hurt” or “He’s just hungry and tired and can’t control himself”). Instead, label the behaviour for your child. For example, you could say, “You’re being rude”. You should then tell him you don’t want to hear him talking in that tone any more, and end the discussion. This isn’t going to cause your child’s self-esteem to head south. In fact, it’s going to make him feel less out of control and, consequently, more secure.

The old rule: Giving kids choices enhances their sense of self.

Here’s the rationale behind the old way of thinking: When you let your child have a say about what goes on in her life, she gains confidence in her ability to make decisions. That may be partially true, but it’s easy to get carried away. Many parents now feel compelled to listen to their kids’ input on almost all matters.

The new rule: Limited choices prepare kids to make it in the real world.

The fact is, life doesn’t offer endless possibilities. You’re not always able to choose what happens to you, and dealing with the demands that come your way, even if they’re frustrating, helps a child develop resilience. If you allow your child to have a say in everything – what time to leave for school, whether to have a snack before a meal, what to watch on television – you’re helping her develop a sense of entitlement, not self-esteem.

The old rule: Explain everything.

Many parents have been taught to explain to their child why they are demanding certain things from him. It’s better for a child’s sense of self, the theory goes, if you don’t simply boss him around. And so, even the best mums and dads get caught up in explaining why something is important. But explanations and justifications leave kids confused about who’s in charge. In an increasingly frightening world, this is a recipe for greater anxiety rather than greater confidence.

The new rule: Sometimes, it’s OK simply to take charge.

Every once in a while, when you’re getting a barrage of “Why do I have to?” it’s fine to say, “Because I’m the parent and I said so. We’ll discuss it later”. Such an announcement tells your child that sometimes he has to do things without understanding the reasons. Ultimately, your child will see that the things you demand from him make sense: If he goes to his room for quiet time as you’ve asked him to, he’ll discover that he’s less tired and cranky later on. Such lessons will show him that he can depend on the adult he loves most – you – to know what’s best for him.

The old rule: The more your child can do, the more confident she’ll be.

This rule tells us that the sooner children are exposed to different activities, the better off they’ll be. As a result, frenzied parents have their kids listening to Mozart in utero, watching educational videos from the crib and participating in a variety of enrichment programmes as soon as they start preschool. This has created a generation of kids who are so ferociously busy they need their own PDAs to keep track of their schedules.

The new rule: Do less, connect more.

When your child has too many activities on her agenda, not only does she tend to skate through them but you inevitably end up trying to manage her life – not share it with her. Logistics like drop-offs, pickups and equipment checks rule your day. The fact is, being relentlessly managed does not build a child’s self-esteem. It robs her of a real connection to you. So it’s best to cut back on your child’s busy schedule and give her more downtime with the family. Chances are she, as well as you, will feel more relaxed. Then the connection between you and your child will grow, strengthening the loving bonds that are the true foundation for brighter, cooler, more confident kids.

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