08/10/2013 09:36 am ET Updated Oct 10, 2013

Shopping With a Grandchild: Lessons Learned

When our grandchildren come to visit us, it is quite common for us to take them shopping, and they are now the age that instead of shopping for toys, we usually go after something to wear. Well, as any grandparent who has teenage children well knows, taking your thirteen year old granddaughter shopping these days can be quite an ordeal. You see, many times what she wants to wear does not seem appropriate to us older grandparents. We have recently gone through this!

It seems to us that what girls are wearing these days is getting shorter and shorter and what boys are wearing is getting longer and longer. It used to be that boys had relatively short shorts and girls had longer shorts. Now it's the exact opposite. And there was a time that underwear meant exactly what the word implies -- something that is worn under your clothes. But now women and girls have no problem showing their undergarments, and "hip-hugger" pants can be revealing for both men and women.

I think back on earlier days, when the center spreads of Esquire magazine and the pinups that soldiers and sailors had during World War II were not nearly as revealing as what teenage girls and women wear as regular clothing today, and yet men and boys back then drooled over such pictures. Many of the skirts women wear now are much shorter than the original miniskirts that, when they were first introduced, were thought by many to be scandalous.

Today's everyday clothing, swimwear, and even the way some store-window mannequins are dressed leave little for the imagination. And we might add daytime and evening TV, movies and magazines to that list. They all join in making the awe and beauty of intimacy so very common. Many of us grandparents think that children should experience the full joy of a wholesome childhood and should be shuttered from adulthood until they truly are adults. And we have trouble buying some of the apparel that seems to be so popular among today's female population.

So what do we do -- buy our teenage grandchildren clothing we think is totally inappropriate; say "absolutely no" to our grandchildren, leaving them to sulk; buy something we want, knowing quite well that when they get home they'll stash it away and never wear it? Just what do we do?

Recently, when we were shopping with our thirteen year old granddaughter in a relatively small mall, I saw an older couple with a young girl, probably twelve or thirteen years old, carrying some bags indicating that they, too, were shopping with a granddaughter. The grandparents and the young girl seemed very happy. So I inquired, "Shopping with a grandchild?" The lady and the young girl both looked up, and the lady said, "Yes, we are." I said, "So are we."

I looked at the young girl and said, "It looks as if you are having a really good time with your grandma and grandpa." She just beamed and said, "I sure am."

The grandmother then engaged me in more conversation. "We are having so much trouble finding something she likes and something we think is appropriate. Is that a problem for you?" Whereupon, I confirmed that it certainly was. She then told me about a clerk in another store who had been very helpful and suggested we might find it worthwhile to seek her out. The grandfather, giving his smile and nod of approval, pointed in the direction of the store. We acted on their suggestion.

It turned out that the clerk she was referring to was a woman I estimated to be in her early forties. When our granddaughter was looking at some shirts and blouses she laid out for her, the clerk confided to my wife and me that she, as the mother of a teenage girl, faced the same problem. Of course, we were eager to hear what she had to say.

She told us there were three things that had made it possible for her and her daughter to agree on clothing that made them both happy. First of all, she suggested, that parents and grandparents need to say "no" when apparel is clearly inappropriate and to explain why. They need to take the time to engage in meaningful conversation, being sure to listen carefully to their daughter's or granddaughter's likes and dislikes and to reply to them thoughtfully. Further, she pointed out, that if those of us buying clothing would say "no" more frequently, stores would have little choice but to carry more appropriate merchandise for young girls and teenagers.

Second, parents and grandparents need to look around until they find clothing that is acceptable to them and to their children or grandchildren, and she pointed out that, if they take the time to look, there are stores that carry apparel that will be acceptable to everyone involved. Bright colors, she suggested, can be very attractive to young buyers and, at the same time, be appropriately stylish.

Third, parents and grandparents need to realize that both they and the teenagers they are shopping with will have to give and take a little. After all, she said, that's what life is all about: not always insisting on one's own way, but learning how to compromise -- not on basic principles, but on how to preserve those basic principles in reasonable and practical ways.

As one thinks about it, she needs to have a conversation with our politicians in Washington. She might also consider writing a general advice column for solving the basic problems of life. It seems to me that she makes a lot of practical sense we all could learn from.