Children’s clothing has always said more about the parents than the kids. Colonial Americans were typically styled as miniature adults, for example, and magazines instructed mothers a century later to dress their babies as “picturesque” works of art. These days, anxieties over children’s clothing tend to center on gender messaging: Why is pink for girls and blue for boys, and why are girls’ clothes plastered with bows and boys’ with trucks? But today’s handwringing over unicorns vs. dinosaurs has left unexamined another major trend in contemporary kidswear: Parents are now dressing their children like the parents’ biggest fans.
You might not have noticed this if you haven’t shopped for a young child recently. Scattered examples have existed for years. But lately, it has turned into a phenomenon. Here’s a selection of children’s T-shirts currently available for purchase from a range of major retailers: “Mom is better than pizza,” “My mom is kind of a big deal,” “My mommy is amazing,” “My mom’s super-duper amazing,” “The thing I love most about my mom is pretty much everything,” “Super rad like Mom“ “Mom is my hero,” “My mom is my anchor,” “Mom makes me happy,” “My mom moves mountains,” “My mom is what you’d call a hottie.”
Let’s not forget Dad, although he does not seem to be quite so well-represented, perhaps because he isn’t buying as many kids’ clothes: “My dad is rad,” “Dad is super Rad!” “I have the Best Dad Ever,” “Dad is my super hero,” “Got my cool from Dad,” “My dad’s beard is cooler than yours.”
I’m not overanxious about the very idea of “using” a child to make a statement. Parenting is statements all the way down. Firetruck pajamas are a statement, pink ruffles are a statement, and Instagram-friendly modern neutrals are a statement. It only grates when the statement seems regrettable. Children holding political signs are “pawns” when we reject the aims of the protest, and “adorable” when we don’t.
It’s worth comparing this trend to the “No. 1 Dad” phenomenon, which still exists. But No. 1 Dad gear is historically a gift freely offered by a child to a parent. A child-size “My Dad is No. 1” shirt, by contrast, is a “gift” from parent to child. It’s one thing to accept a crown and a whole different thing to force your subjects to wave flags proclaiming your awesomeness.
Before a kid can read or write, message tees provide an opportunity for a parent to ventriloquize at whim. The child cannot object, so the parents get to have some fun. This is why baby onesies in particular have veered toward the raunchy over time. Walmart’s website now sells an infant bodysuit reading “shits and giggles.” Get it? Because babies shit and giggle.
In a similar vein, some designers offer realist toddler slogans, like “Please? Please? Please? Please? Please?” or “I see the rules as more of a rough guide.” But why would I want my toddler to advertise her worst tendencies or—worse—precociously perform them like a sitcom brat? The flip side of these is smarm, in which a child is a billboard for wholly inoffensive values: “Love is my superpower“ “Kindness is so gangster.” (Huh?) It’s hard to object too strongly to these banalities, although as a Calvinist and a parent, I have a hard time accepting that children have much to teach anyone about kindness.
So why does the wave of children’s gear proclaiming the awesomeness of the parents feel at once so ridiculous and so inevitable? Kids do, after all, tend to worship their parents! Wholly reciprocated unconditional love is one of the wonderful things about caring for a very young child. In return for every spare scrap of time, money, and mental energy, you’re pretty much guaranteed at least a few years of rock-solid adoration. Why, then, do we suddenly need to brag about it?
To be clear, I’m not criticizing the individual parent whose child sports a benign and corny shirt proclaiming his or her love. The booming market for these slogans suggests a combination of insecurity and misplaced braggadocio lurking behind modern parenthood—and a clothing industry eager to exploit it. Message tees have been embraced by high fashion, and earnest political tees in particular are having a moment. So it’s only natural that a version of this look should filter down to the children’s aisle too.
Perhaps the trend can also be explained by the fact that modern parenthood itself is so torturously overanalyzed. Have we ever in human history spent so much time deciding whether to become parents, thinking about What It All Means, agonizing over every small choice from diet to discipline, and then defending those choices to other parents and nonparents and the entire internet? Maybe that’s why we like the idea of our kids telling us, even if just via shirt, “HEY, MOM, YOU’RE DOING GREAT!!!”