- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 27, 2005

A new Club Libby Lu — a pink and purple-hued fantasy boutique for tweens — has opened with a fusillade of glitter and fairy dust at Columbia Mall in Maryland, joining its sister store at Tysons Corner. Oh happy day.

Just what every girl needs, another spot to drop her parents’ hard-earned cash to buy a fake tiara, fuzzy pink slippers, and bath gel that smells like Froot Loops.

At Club Libby Lu, preteens can also indulge their inner Hilary Duff or Ashlee Simpson, donning sparkly makeup and glitzy duds so they can pretend to be a pop star. Or a princess (the store is big on ersatz royalty, dubbing customers VIPs — Very Important Princesses). Or a movie star, or a celebrity — no option for epidemiologist or civil engineer in sight.

Club Libby Lu is the brainchild of Mary Drolet (the store is named for her imaginary childhood playmate), formerly of Claire’s, that mecca of dime store bling found in every mall in America. It is meant to cater to tweens, girls ages 6 to 13, who are too old for Build-A-Bear and too young for Victoria’s Secret.

Wait a minute — 6? Childhood now ends at 6? So now you go from Pull-Ups to thongs?

Census 2000 figures report that tweens are more than 20.9 million strong. That’s a lot of high-pitched squeals. It also translates into about $550 billion spent by families of preteens on products and services. On their own, tweens spend roughly $10 billion, according to the book “The Gnat Tween Buying Machine” (Paramount, 2001).

Club Libby Lu is the latest way to attract this potent youth market, who look and act like kids but aspire to be teenagers. The store offers makeovers — dubbed Libby Dus — so that now these little girls can even get a head start on the debilitating self-consciousness and anxiety about looks and body that afflict teen girls today.

Perhaps even sadder than indoctrinating young girls into a lifetime of not feeling like they measure up is the whole idea of “shopping events.” Places like Club Libby Lu — with their areas where youngsters can play dress-up or create their own bubble bath or lip gloss — provide experiences children used to get at home.

Today’s parents have outsourced childhood.

Instead of sitting at the kitchen table with a coloring book, moms can drop the children at the Crayola Store, where they can have a coloring “experience.” Rather than going to a pier or lake, dads can now take their young anglers to Arundel Mills Mall to the Bass Pro Outlet and fish in their in-store pond, where the fish are crammed in like sausages and a catch is assured.

This emphasis on the “retail event” relies heavily on prefabricated fantasy and commodified imagination. The make-believe is spoon-fed and predictable — none of that pesky creativity or effort on the parents’ part required.

Why do we feel compelled to farm out play? Are we so overanxious to coddle our children and supply them with ready-made experience that we are convinced the numbing cacophony of Chuck E. Cheese is superior to pizza and giggles at home, or that a paintball park is better than cheap squirt guns in the back yard?

Outsourcing fun may be less stressful and more convenient for parents, but it results in children who constantly look outside the home and most importantly, outside themselves, for joy. These budding experience junkies expect every activity to ratchet higher on the stimulation scale — and expect every day to be a party.

Sometimes, it’s good to just be a kid. Case in point, my friend Colette told me the other day about the sleepover party she had for her 10-year-old daughter.

She reported that the birthday girl and her friends thought Colette was the coolest mom ever and that they had never before had such a great time.

Why? Was it because Colette paid a gazillion dollars to have Tyra Banks drop by and offer makeup tips? Did the gift bags contain Juicy Couture jeans?

No, the girls had a blast because Colette came up with games that primarily involved balloons, trash bags, and silly suggestions written out on cards. They played dress-up and made one girl look like a baby, fashioning a diaper out of a garbage bag and stuffing it with so much toilet paper that she waddled instead of walked, causing much hilarity among the partygoers.

They made caramel apples, played Truth or Dare, and ran around in the yard until way after dark, when Colette joined them in doing cartwheels on the lawn.

For one night, they were not aspiring supermodels, singing sensations, or tabloid fodder. They weren’t even a demographic. They were 10-year-old girls, perfect the way they were.

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