The birthday boy was turning 6, and my own young son and I arrived at the celebration in our somewhat loose definition of party clothes: Timothy in his best bluejeans and a tiny button-down shirt with stripes the colors of popsicles. The party room was filled with balloons; parents drinking coffee; a stray baby sister or two; and a dozen little boys, more than half of whom were dressed in various pieces of camouflage sportswear. Together, they suggested a small army squad.
For a moment, I thought I must have missed something in the invitation – that though we'd received a Spider-Man-emblazoned card, the small print must have said "Come Celebrate Bo with G.I. Joe!" But a quick glance around the room revealed Spider-Man cake plates and napkins and a creepy crawler craft station. No. The boys were just in their party clothes, which, it turns out, are the same as their school and play clothes.
Maybe it's me, but I would no sooner dress my essence-of-innocence son as a soldier than I would dress my daughter, if I had one, as a hooker (whoops – seems some moms are doing that, too). Not to equate heroic work with sleazy endeavors – it's the frank adultness of each that makes me shiver.
Today's clothing options for kids are dizzying (unless, of course, you're seeking a plain white T-shirt). But they do adhere rather strictly to some of our more inescapable stereotypes. The choices for little girls range largely from pink to pink: pink tops, pink bottoms, pink denim, pink velvet, pink corduroy, pink glitter, with the occasional leopard print (an intriguing alternative) thrown in. The choices for little boys are nearly always blue or green, with designs involving sports logos and motifs, things with wheels, a shot of plaid, or, back to the point, camouflage.
The camo is, admittedly, the cutest, hippest interpretation of the stuff around – pint-sized sweat shirts and fleece pants, rain slickers, teensy underpants – even pajamas. But who would want to drift off to dreamland outfitted for war? Who would want their child to?
The irony is that it's meant to conceal – "Fabric or a garment dyed in splotches of green, brown, tan, and black, so as to make the wearer indistinguishable from the surrounding environment," according to the American Heritage Dictionary. But the trend has become so pervasive that our kids have become indistinguishable from one another. What happened to children as peacocks? As brightly colored, joyfully clothed spirits? (So dressed, they're also easier to spot at the playground and along back roads.)
We are a nation at war, and no matter your politics, we all support the dedicated and self-sacrificing men and women and mommies and daddies who make up our troops. But is that what lies behind the purchase of every camo hoodie at Old Navy? I doubt it. So what on earth is everyone thinking?
There is no getting around the fact that camouflage has threatening connotations. Camouflage suggests everything from "military," "war," and "combat" to "hide" and "hunt" and the implications therein. It may also suggest "patriotism," though patriotism of a less menacing sort could be achieved by dressing kids in stars and stripes.
Childhood is fleeting enough. Why would we, as parents, want to suggest the painful realities of a soldier's life (or, alternately, that of the primal hunter) any sooner than we need to (if ever)? Let's let our children be children, and if we're inclined to fuel their fantasies, let them be sweet.
While any of it is still under my control at all, I'll dress my little boy in all he needs to adorn or delight him, which generally ranges from red T-shirts to orange ones to ones with bright, happy stripes or the occasional thing with a monkey. The day will come soon enough when he may want his clothing to broadcast statements like, "I'll clean up my room after Armageddon." It's possible, I realize, that he might even choose to join the Army. But he's 7, and he needn't dress the part now.
Laraine Perri is a writer and Grammy Award-winning producer.