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A Growing Problem : What are parents to do when their preteens hit that awkward 'tween' stage--when kids' clothes are too small and juniors' are too sophisticated? Be persistent and learn to compromise.

September 24, 1993|ROSE-MARIE TURK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Lynne Lehmkuhl needed to buy party shoes for her 11-year-old daughter, she took the day off from work.

"I knew this was going to be hell," says Lehmkuhl, publisher of New York-based Nickelodeon magazine, whose daughter has outgrown children's sizes. And finding her an appropriate women's Size 5 is no easy feat, not even in Manhattan. "I trotted her to every department store and every little shoe store and finally settled on a pair of black flats--at Nordstrom in New Jersey."

Just another New York story? Hardly. Parents of Southern California preteens face similar ordeals as they struggle to assemble fall wardrobes. In market-research parlance, their 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds have turned into tweens --kids too big (in body or mind) for children's wear and too young to carry off sophisticated junior merchandise. All too often the solutions are compromises found after frustrating hours in stores--like the $49 pointy-toed flats Lehmkuhl bought.

Her search would have been a cinch, she says, if she were willing to put her daughter in "little heels. But she's too young. It would look stupid."

Finding clothing is equally problematic: "She can fit into a girls' Size 12, but they're too babyish. And the clothes in the junior department are very sexy," says Lehmkuhl, who "reluctantly bought" a sexy, expensive Betsey Johnson "little-girl-size" outfit. But mostly, she says, "(my daughter) and her peers do a lot of the Gap. They just wear the clothes kind of biggish."

Big clothing is an issue for some parents, including Sharon House, vice president of a Los Angeles marketing firm. Shopping recently with her 12-year-old son, she discovered, "It's hard to find anything but these huge, huge pants and the big, oversize look, which I think is a little too sophisticated. It's a high school look. He's just entering junior high. It's very difficult to find a happy medium between little boys clothes and hip-hop."

In the boys' department of the Broadway in Century City, she found Hang Ten striped shirts ($14 each) "that still have a little innocence." And peer approval. "His best friend went out and got the same shirt," House says.

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Eva Conrad, psychology professor at San Bernardino Community College and mother of a 10-year-old boy, agrees that finding appropriate T-shirts is a problem. "A lot of the available clothing gives messages that are too old," she says, citing one that advises: "Ignore What Your Parents Say."

Like many parents, Conrad finds dressy clothing a problem. "It's all adult: a pair of gray flannels, a blazer and a shirt. He looks like his dad. I feel our tolerance for fashion experimenting in boys is much lower (than in girls)."

Faced with a similar dilemma, Marcy Butler-Forrest of Los Angeles, mother of a 12-year-old, shops Bullock's boys' department for soft Mondo dress shirts instead of stiff Oxford cloth shirts. And vests. Compared to other tailored components, she says, "They're easier to find. Maybe because some people would rather put their money in a vest and dress shirt and not bother with the jacket." She has also discovered "fun, interesting" boys' ties by Nicole Miller at Rudnick's in Santa Monica.

After looking in four stores recently, Gina Moffitt, a Los Feliz architect and mother of 10-year-old twin girls, found one pair of jeans that "didn't look funky."

"If your children want to feel trendy without looking messy, it's hard to find," she says. Now, with Gap jeans (adult Size 1 slim for the twin who is tall for her age), a vest and a T-shirt or a "crisp" white shirt, "we have one outfit that works," Moffitt says.

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For Shirley Capata, a Los Angeles mother who shops junior departments for her 11-year-old girl, "The biggest nightmare isn't play clothes--it's dresses, because in the junior department they're made to look kind of sexy, and she's not old enough for that."

She uses a dressmaker and shops directly from the manufacturer of women's one-size-fits-all baby-doll dresses. She also discovered chiffon separates-- palazzo pants, matching vest and a T-shirt--"that will take the place of a dress" on sale recently at Express in the Beverly Center.

Teresa Riddle, assistant principal of a San Fernando Valley middle school, says her daughter "is taller than the average 12-year-old. We buy some things in the junior department. But one thing I'm very cognizant of is middle-grade children being appropriately dressed."

"Inappropriate" items, such as halter tops and short shorts, aren't allowed on campus. And even if they were, Riddle says her daughter would feel uncomfortable in them. "So she buys many of her things in the women's department. The shorts are longer. There's a greater variety, and I feel the quality is a little better."

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