Can you afford prom night? Do you want to?

With prom season on the horizon, the New York Times reports that -- at least on Long Island, which may not be an indicator of anything -- the market for prom-related items like clothes, tanning, hair, nails, tickets and transportation isn't flinching at the recession. While sales figures seem to be in line with 2008, the paper also notes that there are, "plenty of signs that spending on these events is causing families financial strain."

As a parent and a children's therapist, all of this inclines me to lose my lunch. It also makes me wonder whether these parents or teenagers have any idea how thoroughly they've been had.

The truth is that if you haven't sorted out your own values then it's probably too late by prom time. Parents who still worry about having the "right" clothes themselves, who believe that being a good parent means giving your child the "best ____" (fill in the blank - Christmas, kindergarten, summer camp, wardrobe, college) don't have a lot to contribute when it comes to helping kids deal with a culture that has been hoodwinked by competition and possessions.

Like so many things in life, a light touch and a good attitude may make more of a difference to your child's happiness than how deep your pockets happen to be.
The vaunted "PROM" is a great example. Even when teenagers use some of their own earnings toward the cost, it still doesn't make any kind of economic sense to spend hundreds of dollars to go to a dance. As any dermatologist will tell you, tanning sprays are less expensive and much healthier for your skin than continuous tanning treatment. Is it actually child abuse to share driving four young people to the prom and after-events with another family? Will your daughter spend years in psychotherapy because you helped her -- and maybe one or two of her friends -- do nails and hair at home? You might just wind up with memories that make you laugh instead of credit card bills that make you cry.

Finally, there is the issue of the dress, a rite of passage for young women. The real fun is trying them on and finding the one you love. If your daughter flinches at the possibility that she might wear a "used" dress, try this three step formula:

1. Mention that the "used" dress has very likely been worn exactly once and can be professionally dry-cleaned for about $15.

2. Spend a Saturday morning together visiting local thrift stores, particularly those located in affluent neighborhoods. Look at accessories as well as dresses. Tell her that you will pay 100% of the costs for whatever she can find for the prom at a thrift store.

3. Spend an hour with her looking at some of the 12,000-plus prom dresses on eBay.

Here's the bottom line. Whether your teen's prom turns out to be a magical evening or simply a night with friends will depend on the people it is shared with and how they feel about themselves. Remember, it was Cinderella who had the best time at the ball.

When it comes to the prom, you can't buy your child happiness or beautiful memories. You can spend excessive hours and dollars and make it into a mega-event. But in the end, that may only make the evening more disappointing. Instead, view the prom as a teaching moment for your teen. What matters more? Friends or stuff?
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