Last year when I was still teaching Ethics at my kids’ school, we had a conversation that still goes around and around in my head.
One of the boys, let’s call him Bruce, is one of those kids who is champing at the bit to grow up. He’s 10 years old and he already sports Bieb hair, weird sock strategy and an attitude. In my experience, these kids usually have an older sister.
Let’s just talk about the weird sock strategy for a second. See, when you put kids in uniform and they think they’re cool but they’re still too young to actually rebel, they turn to the sock. The way they wear their socks matters a great deal. Bruce wears one ankle sock fully pulled up and one scrunched down. He spends a lot of time pulling up that one sock and scrunching down the other. I snort laughed a little when I first noticed that the weird sock combination wasn’t accidental – it was a life strategy. I stopped laughing when the next week three other boys were wearing identical sock arrangements.
So Bruce is sitting in the Ethics class working his funny old socks and the topic of the day is “Being Vain”. Now, vanity is a very, very interesting topic to discuss with kids at the best of times, but never more than when the lesson prompts a person to ask about whether vanity is attached to being perceived as “cool”.
“I’m the leader of the cool group at our school,” Bruce pipes up, pulling up his sock. “I’m the coolest kid in the school.”
I cast my eyes around the circle to gauge the reaction of the other kids to Bruce’s (rather outlandish IMO) statement. I’m met with either nods of agreement (all wearing mismatched sock combination) or glazed indifference (not wearing mismatched socks).
“What do you think makes a person cool, Bruce,” I ask, mainly because I’m dying to know.
“I’m good at sport,” he responded confidently. “And I tell people what to do. That’s what makes me cool.”
“Does everyone agree that being good at sport and telling people what to do makes a person cool,” I throw to the group.
Nods all around. Bruce starts doing some kind of random interpretive dance to show just how cool he is and something about it irritates the f@#k out of me.
Maybe it was little Bronny from long ago, who was not good at sport and did not like being told what to do by kids fussing over socks, who said (somewhat more firmly than grown-up Bronny would have liked), “Well, Bruce, the way I see it is that if you have to tell everyone that you’re cool, you’re probably not very cool at all.”
Snorts all around and I saw one kid hurry to push his pulled-up sock down. I quickly got the conversation back on script, “Right everyone, is, um, being vain a bad thing?”
Bruce really got me thinking, though, because on so many levels that darn kid was right: People are cool because they tell us they’re cool. Fads and fashions come and go so quickly and the ‘cool people’ are the ones who follow those fashions. They’re actually not the ones inventing the trends – the true ‘cool people’ in my book – because the trendsetters turn in the spotlight is so fleeting. Blink and their turn is over.
Hipsters are the perfect example. Does anyone alive still think they’re cool? Well, once upon a time, back in the dark ages of 2011 they were supremely cool because they were just living their life in their own happy way. Then their (slightly) counter-culture approach to living hit the mainstream and everyone was a hipster for a brief moment in time (my moment was my fanciful flirtation with bike travel in 2012). The hipster movement grew and grew – hell, it became a goddamn movement – at the same pace as its cool factor shrank and sank. By the time Supre were churning out plaid hoodies and Cranks were making vintage-style bikes, being a hipster had the same cool factor as being a suburban mum. Mostly because suburban mums were now hipsters.
But you know what – and this is the bit that Bruce will never understand – the true hipsters don’t give a flying. The whole hipster thing came, conquered, blew up and moved to the ‘burbs and the original hipsters just kept on churning out their recycled coffee cup seedling farms and riding their vintage 2-speeds to work at their start-up tattoo and barber shop in Enmore. Hipster movement? What’s that?
We can laugh at that which used to be cool and is no longer cool (so, so many, many things), but we can never laugh at what coolness truly represents. The uniqueness that is people, just going about their day expressing themselves in a way that brings them pleasure, not really giving a shit about what others think about their choices.
Our kids grow to care a lot about what cool is and isn’t. I think our best bet is to remember that you can’t learn what is cool, but you can learn what isn’t. That kid who pushed his sock down after Bruce did his little I’m-the-coolest-ever dance? Yep, I’m keeping my eye on that kid.
What does ‘cool’ mean to you and how do you tackle it with your kids?