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Prom: The Mother of All Dates

​This information is included in our Guide to Teenage Dating. Click here to see the rest of the guide.

When it comes to attire, nothing can create a rift between parents and their daughters quite like that annual rite of passage - prom. There's nothing like a high school formal to push every possible teenage dating issue to the forefront, sending everyone into hysterics as they search for perfection - the perfect dress, the perfect date, the perfect hair, the perfect shoes, the perfect ride, the perfect dinner, the perfect after party, etc. Girls can obsess (for months) over finding a one-of-a-kind dress, with accessories to match everything from their hair to their heels. Boys can work hard to find dates, and once found, worry how they're going to "pimp their ride" (arrive in a regular limo or stretch SUV?). Teens focus on the details that matter to them. It's the parents who are left to deal with the fallout when the expenses and expectations soar beyond what's reasonable or attainable.

Prom is a billion-dollar industry because marketers, teens, and many parents have given this high school dance the same reverence as a wedding, with a price tag to match. There are Web sites and magazines devoted entirely to "helping" teens experience the "ideal" prom. One online site, selling couture gowns and accessories, had this message for teens: "Remember to start saving early, because going to prom is not cheap. Your memories will last a lifetime so don't skimp on the things that are most important to you. You don't want to regret your decisions later. For the most part, there is only one prom." Sounds a lot like how one might describe a wedding, doesn't it? The same site also offered several "Do's and Don'ts in Prom Etiquette." The advice for the ladies included: 1

  • Do wear body glitter so you sparkle.
    (Message: Girls, again, should emphasize their bodies.)
  • Don't leave your date to be with your friends the whole night. He has a lot of time invested in this night, make it special.
    (Message: Girls "owe" their date something to make the night "special." Is it time? Is it a compliment? Is it a sexual favor? Is it another date? What message is implied, and what message is heard?)
  • Don't make a scene, you'll mess up your makeup from crying.(Message: Girls are too emotional and maybe they should think twice before objecting to a bad idea, behavior, or situation.)
  • Do make sure that you thank your date for dinner, IF it was good!(Message: Politeness is a choice that is dependent on personal whims, not a virtue worth practicing regardless of the circumstances.)

To be fair, several of the do's and don'ts focused on table manners and how to be courteous. But some of the advice, like much of the site itself, reflected the consumerism (a "don't" for guys was "forget your cash") and vanity (another "don't" for guys was "forget to tell her how beautiful she looks") that defines the modern prom. The indulgence and wanton behavior this dance elicits from teens and parents was too much for one principal. He canceled his school's prom. In a letter to parents, the principal explained his reasoning: "It is not primarily the sex/booze/drugs that surround this event, as problematic as they might be; it is rather the flaunting of affluence, assuming exaggerated expenses, a pursuit of vanity for vanity's sake - in a word, financial decadence." 2

Maybe you know parents who spring for luxury limos and other perks for their children's prom. Maybe you know girls who spend several hundred, even a thousand, dollars for designer dresses. Maybe you've already lived through a daughter's prom and went along with her wishes in spite of your unease about its extravagance. Maybe you secretly hope your daughter's school will cancel prom so you wouldn't have to deal with any of it. As appealing as that may sound, there will always be another prom, homecoming, winter formal, or spring fling to test your patience and your daughter's perspective. The good news is that there are a lot of things you can do to combat the crush of marketing and materialism.