Personal Response Essay – Kids in the Mall by Kowinski

Read the article below on  Kids in the Mall by Kowinski  then answer the question below;

Is this the mall you know?

What, if anything, has this done to town centers and to family life?

Write a personal response essay (2-3 page)

Kids in the Mall: Growing Up Controlled.


Butch heaved himself up and loomed over the group. “Like it was different for me,” he piped. “My folks used to drop me off at the shopping mall every morning and leave me all day. It was like a big free baby-sitter, you know? One night they never came back for me. Maybe they moved away. Maybe there’s some kind of a Bureau of Missing Parents I could check with.”

— Richard Peck

Secrets of the Shopping Mall,

a novel for teenagers

From his sister at Swarthmore, I’d heard about a kid in Florida whose mother picked him up after school every day, drove him straight to the mall, and left him there until it closed — all at his insistence. I’d heard about a boy in Wash­ington who, when his family moved from one suburb to another, pedaled his bicycle five miles every day to get back to his old mall, where he once belonged.

These stories aren’t unusual. The mall is a common experience for the majority of American youth; they have probably been going there all their lives. Some ran within their first large open space, saw their first fountain, bought their first toy, and read their first book in a mall. They may have smoked their first cigarette or first joint, or turned them down, had their first kiss or lost their virginity in the mall parking lot. Teenagers in America now spend more time in the mall than any­where else but home and school. Mostly it is their choice, but some of that mall time is put in as the result of two-paycheck and single-parent households, and the lack of other viable alternatives. But are these kids being harmed by the mall?

I wondered first of all what difference it makes for adolescents to experience so many important moments in the mall. They are, after all, at play in the fields of its little world and they learn its ways; they adapt to it and make it adapt to them. It’s here that these kids get their street sense, only it’s mall sense. They are learning the ways of a large-scale, artificial environment; its subtleties and flexibili­ties, its particular pleasures and resonance, and the attitudes it fosters.

The presence of so many teenagers for so much time was not something mall developers planned on. In fact, it came as a big surprise. But kids became a fact of mall life very easily, and the International Council of Shipping Centers found it nec­essary to commission a study, which they published along with a guide to mall man­agers on how to handle the teenage incur­sion.

The study found that “teenagers in suburban centers are bored and come to the shopping centers mainly as a place to go. Teenagers in suburban centers spent more time fighting, drinking, littering and walking than did their urban counter­parts, but presented fewer overall problems.” The report observed that “ado­lescents congregated in groups of two to four and predominantly at locations selected by them rather than manage­ment.” This probably had something to do with the decision to install game ar­cades, which allow management to chan­nel these restless adolescents into nat­urally contained areas away from major traffic points of adult shoppers.

The guide concluded that mall man­agement should tolerate and even encour­age the teenage presence because, in the words of the report, “The vast majority support the same set of values as does shopping center management.” The same set of values means simply that mall kids are already preprogrammed to be con­sumers and that the mall can put the fin­ishing touches to them as hard-core, lifelong shoppers just like everybody else. That, after all, is what the mall is about. So it shouldn’t be surprising that in spending a lot of time there, adolescents find little that challenges the assumption that the goal of life is to make money and buy products, or that just about every­thing else in life is to be used to serve those ends.

Growing up in a high-consumption society already adds inestimable pressure to kids’ lives. Clothes consciousness has invaded the grade schools”, and popularity is linked with having the best, newest clothes in the currently acceptable styles. Even what they read has been affected. “Miss [Nancy] Drew wasn’t obsessed with her wardrobe,” noted the Wall Street Jour­nal. “But today the mystery in teen fiction for girls is what outfit the heroine will wear next.” Shopping has become a sur­vival skill and there is certainly no better place to learn it than the mall, where its importance is powerfully reinforced and certainly never questioned.

The mall as a university of suburban materialism, where Valley Girls and Boys from coast to coast are educated in con­sumption, has its other lessons in this era of change in family life and sexual mores and their economic and social ramifica­tions. The plethora of products in the mall, plus the pressure on teens to buy them, may contribute to the phenomenon that psychologist David Elkind calls “the hurried child”: kids who are exposed to too much of the adult world too quickly and must respond with a sophistication that belies their still-tender emotional de­velopment. Certainly the adult products marketed for children — form-fitting de­signer jeans, sexy tops for preteen girls — add to the social pressure to look like an adult, along with the home-grown need to understand adult finances (why mothers must work) and adult emotions (when parents divorce).

Kids spend so much time at the mall partly because their parents allow it and even encourage it. The mall is safe, doesn’t seem to harbor any unsavory activities, and there is adult supervision; it is, after all, a controlled environment. So the temptation, especially for working par­ents, is to let the mall be their baby-sitter. At least the kids aren’t watching TV. But the mall’s role as a surrogate mother may be more extensive and more profound.

Karen Lansky, a writer living in Los Angeles, has looked into the subject, and she told me some of her conclusions about the effects on its teenaged denizens of the mall’s controlled and controlling environment. “Structure is the dominant idea, since true ‘mall rats’ lack just that in their home lives,” she said, “and adoles­cents about to make the big leap into growing up crave more structure than our modern society cares to acknowledge.” Karen pointed out some of the elements malls supply that kids used to get from their families, like warmth (Strawberry Shortcake dolls and similar cute and cud­dly merchandise), old-fashioned mother­ing (“We do it all for you,” the fast-food slogan), and even home cooking (the “homemade” treats at the food court).

The problem in all this, as Karen Lansky sees it, is that while families nurture children by encouraging growth through the assumption of responsibility and then by letting them rest in the bosom of the family from the rigors of growing up, the mall as a structural mother encourages passivity and consumption, as long as the kid doesn’t make trouble. Therefore all they learn about becoming adults is how to act and how to consume.

Kids are in the mall not only in the passive role of shoppers — they also work there, especially as fast-food outlets infiltrate the mall’s enclosure. There they learn how to hold a job and take responsi­bility, but still within the same value con­text. When CBS Reports went to Oak Park Mall in suburban Kansas City, Kansas, to tape part of their hour-long consideration of malls, “After the Dream Comes True,” they interviewed a teenaged girl who worked in a fast-food outlet there. In a sequence that didn’t make the final pro­gram, she described the major goal of her present life, which was to perfect the curl on top of the ice-cream cones that were her store’s specialty. If she could do that, she would be moved from the lowly soft-drink dispenser to the more presti­gious ice-cream division, the curl on top of the status ladder at her restaurant. These are the achievements that are im­portant at the mall.

Other benefits of such jobs may also be overrated, according to Laurence D. Steinberg of the University of California at Irvine’s social ecology department, who did a study on teenage employment. Their jobs, he found, are generally simple, mind­lessly repetitive and boring. They don’t really learn anything, and the jobs don’t lead anywhere. Teenagers also work pri­marily with other teenagers; even their supervisors are often just a little older than they are. “Kids need to spend time with adults,” Steinberg told me. “Although they get benefits from peer relationships, without parents and other adults it’s one-side socialization. They hang out with each other, have age-segregated jobs, and watch TV.”

Perhaps much of this is not so terrible or even so terribly different. Now that they have so much more to contend with in their lives, adolescents probably need more time to spend with other adoles­cents without adult impositions, just to sort things out. Though it is more concen­trated in the mall (and therefore perhaps a clearer target), the value system there is really the dominant one of the whole soci­ety. Attitudes about curiosity, initiative, self-expression, empathy, and disinter­ested learning aren’t necessarily made in the mall; they are mirrored there, perhaps a bit more intensely — as through a glass brightly.

Besides, the mall is not without its educational opportunities. There are book­stores, where there is at least a short shelf of classics at great prices, and other books from which it is possible to learn more than how to do sit-ups. There are tools, from hammers to VCRs, and prod­ucts, from clothes to records that can help the young find and express them­selves. There are older people with stories, and places to be alone or to talk one-on-one with a kindred spirit. And there is always the passing show.

The mall itself may very well be an ed­ucation about the future. I was struck with the realization, as early as my first forays into Greengate, that the mall is only one of a number of enclosed and con­trolled environments that are part of the lives of today’s young. The mall is just an extension, say, of those large suburban schools — only there’s Karmelkorn in­stead of chem. lab, the ice rink instead of the gym: It’s high school without the im­pertinence of classes.

Growing up, moving from home to school to the mall — from enclosure to en­closure, transported in cars — is a curi­ously continuous process, without much in the way of contrast or contact with un­enclosed reality. Places must tend to blur into one another. But whatever differences and dangers there are in this, the skills these adolescents are learning may turn out to be useful in their later lives. For we seem to be moving inexorably into an age of preplanned and regulated environ­ments, and this is the world they will inherit.

Still, it might be better if they had more of a choice. One teenaged girl con­fessed to CBS Reports that she sometimes felt she was missing something by hang­ing out at the mall so much. “But I’m here,” she said, “and this is what I have.”

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