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What's Up with Your Son and His Sneaker Obsession?

When little boys get into their first superhero costume, magic occurs. They know they have super powers. They think they can fly, bend steel and outrun the wind. A few years later, when it dawns on boys that maybe their Batman capes don’t give them these powers, they seek out something else. Sneakers.

A boy's love affair with his “kicks” is intense. If you’ve ever seen a boy lace up his new sneakers (that word moms usually use) and run around the shoe store, you know what I mean. In the right pair, boys believe they will jump higher and run faster. You can see it in the gleam in their eyes—they are invincible.

But there’s nothing new about shoes being a big deal for boys. From Vans to PF Flyers to Chuck Taylors ("Chucks"), shoes matter. The love of kicks is deep. And for this generation of boys, it's basketball shoes.

The first Air Jordans came onto the market in 1985, right after Michael Jordan first laced up those black-and-red shoes to match the colors of the Chicago Bulls. David Stern, the NBA commissioner at the time, fined Jordan five thousand dollars each time he stepped out on the court because his shoes didn’t have enough white on them. There was nothing David Stern could have done to make Michael Jordan or his shoes look cooler. Jordan was breaking the rules and he looked good doing it.

But why else are shoes such a big deal for boys?

Shoes are the fashion choice that all boys can participate in without being teased. When you go with your son to a store like Foot Locker and the salesperson in that black-and-white striped shirt comes over to your son, what does he ask? Does he ask what size shoe your son wears? No. The smart ones say, “Hey, man, what are your colors?” What other article of clothing could that happen with? Where else could that question be asked without drawing embarrassment from your kid?

The last time I went with my sons, I had a hard time holding back my laughter as I listened to their intense discussion with the salesman. I watched them wander in front of the wall of shoes, saw their intense gaze and subsequent handling of the shoes while they each stared off visualizing their future greatness on the basketball court. The entire thing was completely ridiculous—a fact that I kept to myself.

What isn’t ridiculous and what parents need to be very aware of, is that shoes are a huge indicator among boys about status and money. The shoes boys most covet are heavily marketed to them and extremely expensive. (Nike Kobes are about $170 and LeBrons can go up to $250.) If parents are willing to pay for them, that says a lot about how they’re buying into the marketing campaigns that are targeting our boys and, by extension, our wallets.

Also keep in mind that boys often have judgments about who has the right to wear these shoes. As in, if you wear them but you can’t hold your own athletically, boys are going to make fun of you to your face or ridicule you behind your back.

I am writing about this to suggest that when your son is begging for new shoes and spends hours looking at his various options online, don’t make fun of him or belittle his apparent superficiality. Instead, see this an opportunity to talk about financial responsibility and perception of his image. Tell him how much you are willing to spend. If he still insists that he has to get expensive shoes, tell him he has to use his savings or work to pay for the rest. Then ask him how he thinks his life will be better if he has the shoes he covets and really listen to his answers, because he is giving you a window into his world.

But what if you're having the opposite experience and your son won't get rid of his shoes. Are you that mom who's desperate to buy him new ones because the old ones are so disgusting? The reason he’s doing this may be because he doesn't want to buy into the materialism of the other kids. Boys can do things for amazing reasons, but it's hard to see—even when it's right in front of our eyes. Again, this is an opportunity to look beyond the shoes and ask the boys in our lives why they’re doing things that make so little sense to us. The strange thing is that if we do, we really may learn something.

How does your son feel about his favorite pair of sneakers? Post a comment and tell me.

Rosalind Wiseman is the author of the new best seller Masterminds and Wingmen as well as Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads. For more info, go to rosalindwiseman.com. Read more of Rosalind’s parenting advice, here

Do you have a parenting question? Email askrosalind@familycircle.com.