By Carey Wallace
February 23, 2015

For parents, talking to kids about clothes usually involves questioning the warmth, propriety, cleanliness or sanity of what they’re wearing. But there’s another, less familiar — and possibly more useful — way to discuss an outfit.

Kelsey Timmerman, author of Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories and People That Make Our Clothes, wanted to see where his clothes came from. Reading the label on his favorite T-shirt took him to Honduras, where he met workers at the factory that made it. Trips to Cambodia, where his favorite jeans were made, and China, the source of most flip-flops, followed. “It doesn’t come from somewhere,” he says. “But from someone.”

Talking to kids about where their clothes came from can make something abstract — life in other countries — more concrete. And it’s a fun way to engage kids of all sorts of ages in a discussion about the world.

Timmerman and his elementary-school daughter have a bedtime tradition of looking at where her clothes are made. “It’s a simple act, just looking at the label, and letting your mind open up to think, these pajamas came from Bangladesh, which is on the other side of the world,” Timmerman says. “You’re never too young to be amazed by that, and explore what it means.”

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Middle-school students “can go a little deeper,” Timmerman says, using the labels on their clothes as an opportunity to learn about the demographics of other countries. Parents can ask questions like “How do you think life is different than it is here?”

High school students, Timmerman finds, are ready for conversations about the deeper implications of global commerce, like child labor, and the big differences in income between different countries. A great conversation-starter there, he says, is photographer Peter Menzel’s Material World, which shows families from different countries photographed with all their possessions.

Students can sometimes feel powerless when they confront these realities, so Timmerman says it’s important to let them know they can make a difference. In the past, schoolkids have helped bring fair-trade practices to athletic gear and school uniforms. “Students,” says Timmerman, “have really led the way on a lot of these issues.”

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