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Eleven-year-old Emma Helm and her mother Corey Helm pose with the dress Emma will wear to grade six graduation and after-party. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Eleven-year-old Emma Helm and her mother Corey Helm pose with the dress Emma will wear to grade six graduation and after-party. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Parenting costs

How much should you spend on your little prom queen? Add to ...

They know what they like (the $350 gold-sequined minidress from a Montreal boutique); they know who they want to look like (Kim Kardashian eyes, Beyoncé lips please), and they know how they want to party (on a boat cruise, where else?). And they’re not even old enough to drive.

These are some of the latest prom trends, not with high-school students, but with 11- to 14-year-olds graduating from primary and middle schools. considering how aware of the trends today’s tweens are, and the purchasing power they wield.

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“We’ve definitely noticed younger girls looking for fancier dresses this year, even though our clientele is 18 and over,” says Amanda Eaman, co-owner of Montreal boutique Lola & Emily, which sells the gold mini topping girls’ wish lists. Most of Lola & Emily’s dresses retail between $100 and $400. “If the demand keeps up, we may start targeting these girls more specifically,” Ms. Eaman says. “They’re still kids, but they know the trends and they want them.”

And trendy, of course, doesn’t come cheap. For Grade 8 graduations, more families are dropping $450 for limos or $100 for professional photographers to immortalize the occasion. IPods and iPads are the hot gift for parents eager to mark the milestone, and for girls, hair, makeup, mani-pedis, show-stopper dresses and even fake tans drive up the costs even further.

Not all parents are thrilled about the idea of lavish grad ceremonies for their tweens.

“I think this is nuts,” says Denise Schipani, author of Mean Moms Rule, a manifesto encouraging parents to embrace their inner meanie and say ‘no’ instead of indulging every teensy wish. “I see little girls getting all done up for First Communion like little brides. What do you do when they’re in high school? Rent an island?”

The parent committee at Adam Beck Public School in Toronto had a heated debate over how their 11- and 12-year-olds should celebrate their June graduation.

“When we were young, the end of Grade 6 was more like ‘see ya,’ ” says parent Corey Helm. “There wasn’t any stress over it,” she adds, saying limos were suggested for the night but the committee shot the idea down.

The parents also debated throwing a beach party and renting out part of a pub before settling on the lower-key option of a dance at a neighbourhood community centre. Boat cruises are also gaining popularity.

Ms. Helm figures she got lucky when her daughter Emma, 11, thought the black-and-white strapless dress her teenaged neighbour offered up was perfect – quite the monetary coup when some parents had spent $200 for a gown. (Ms. Helm will, however, splurge for Emma to get an up-do at a neighbourhood salon.)

Discerning tweens no longer content with off-the-rack items from chain stores like H&M or the Gap are flocking to online retailers such as MyGirlDress.com and PinkPrincess.com, which serve mostly the primary and middle-school crowd. (PinkPrincess also offers an array of kindergarten- and preschool-grad outfits.)

Spending $90 on a professional make-up artist might seem an excessive extra, but some parents approach it as a good investment, fearing that otherwise their tweens may plaster on eyeliner and lipstick trying to create their favourite celebrity look.

“Most teenagers are clueless about makeup. They overdo it because they’re trying too hard,” says Vancouver make-up artist Yasiv Marin, adding that her middle-school clients often request a Kim Kardashian look.

J. Lo and Beyoncé also figure prominently on wish lists, along with false eyelashes, Ms. Marin says. She tries to steer girls to less obtrusive products like shimmer – a good option for young teens just starting out with make-up. “I try to give them a lesson that less is more.”

The bump in prom budgets isn’t only happening with the adolescent grads. While there’s no comparable data for Canada, a recent Visa Inc. poll found that U.S. teens will spend an average of $1,078 for their high-school proms, up 34 per cent from last year. And it’s not just the well-heeled: The same poll found that families who make less than $50,000 a year plan to spend more than their wealthier counterparts.

Ms. Schipani sees a backlash against overindulgence on the horizon as parents worry about producing a generation of self-absorbed, entitled teens. It’s definitely on the minds of parents at Adam Beck public school. As they struggled to reach a consensus on the details of the Grade 6 grad celebration, overindulgence was something they strived to avoid. But it’s a delicate balance. “Everyone just wants it to be special,” Ms. Helm says. “We want the kids to remember it.”

Parent DeaAnn deGruijter received an onslaught of negative e-mails after she suggested kids could ride in vintage-car limos. “You would think I was a terrorist,” she says, adding that the limos would have been free because of a neighbourhood connection.

She feels parents bear some responsibility for the celebrity feel of grad night.

“We’re the ones fanning this fire. We keep telling these kids that this occasion is special, that we need to do something special – so we can’t not do something special.”

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