When my older daughter was 15, we visited a mall neither of us had seen before. While I looked for a directory, my daughter assured me that her “sense of mall” would take us where we needed to go. Amazingly, it did.
Teens are an adaptable species, capable of occupying many habitats. They thrive in summer camps, football stadiums, dance studios and even, when necessary, classrooms. But for the suburban American teen, few places can be as nurturing as the mall. During their teenage years, my daughters patrolled the carpeted corridors of Simon properties the way a pair of lionesses might scout the Serengeti. They were in their element.
Some mall managers, however, have come to view teenagers as a nuisance and are doing everything they can to keep the “mall rats” out. Malls across the country have instituted policies requiring youths to be accompanied by adults during the prime weekend evening socializing hours. Other malls have placed limits on the number of under-eighteens who can shop together as a group.
The mall owners claim that restricting teens’ access to the stores helps sales. Middle-aged shoppers, they say, are intimidated by large groups of teenagers. The age-based policies allow older customers to conduct business without having to worry about encountering young people having fun. Mall owners also hope that by requiring teens to be accompanied by older adults, they can lure in parents who may be willing to spend more than their unemployed offspring.
This attitude is nothing new. Back in 1981, when I was an Associated Press reporter in Albany, N.Y., I was assigned to do a story on “mall rats.” The situation then was pretty much the same as now: Teens wanted to hang out at malls and mall owners didn’t want them to. In 1996 the Mall of America, the shopping behemoth in Bloomington, Minn., became one of the first to explicitly ban unaccompanied minors.
Mall owners are free to run their establishments as they see fit, but I have my doubts about the anti-teen policies. Malls may be willing to offend teenagers, who generally lack large disposable incomes, but my guess is that plenty of parents will also be less than thrilled by the rules.
I know that I would have been pretty unhappy with any business that made my children feel needlessly unwelcome. They were good kids and did not deserve to be treated as potential delinquents rather than potential customers. But I also would have had another, more personal reason for annoyance. If my kids could not do their mall business on their own, they would have looked for a parent to accompany them, and there is a 50-50 chance it would have been me. Shopping is not high on my list of favorite things. It ranks somewhere below spending quality time with Hammering Herb, my dentist.
Fortunately, the latest wave of restrictions won’t have much effect on me. My household has been officially teenager-free for several months. I can sit back and watch as another generation of mall operators tries to drive out another generation of “mall rats.” But if it comes down to a battle of wits between the “mall rats” and the mall operators, I'm betting on the kids. I don't think the mall ecosystem can survive without them.