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“Adulkid”: The Accelerating Evolution of Homo Consumens

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The adage that “children will be children” may not hold true in South Korea. Adding to the pressures faced by kids to excel in academics and god knows what else, a new social trend revolves around the concept of “adulkid,” aimed at making children look and behave like adults.

At Seoul Fashion Week last fall, children who looked as young as five or six were posing in trendy clothes more suitable for adults. A camera-wielding crowd — “street photographers” who take pictures of fashionable people to post online — encircled them, snapping away for a good while. When the paparazzi had had their fill, mothers stepped in, dragging the kids to another spot where more photographers would gather. The children, though, looked bored and fidgety.

Consumerism provides a big push. A company making waves is Henes, which specializes in “premium kids vehicles.” It sells motorized single-passenger toy cars designed to emulate expensive cars for adults. On the company’s website the cars range in price from 680,000 to more than 1 million won (approx. 600 to 900 US dollars).

It’s a hefty price tag even when compared to similar motorized toy cars for children available on the market. (One fully operational miniature Mercedes-Benz model, manufactured by a different firm, is being sold for a little less than 500,000 won — around 450 USD dollars — online.) Business daily Hankyung reports that Henes enjoys the biggest market share in South Korea for toy cars, despite the cost of its products.

In a market geared more toward girls, beauty salons advertise makeup sessions for minors for special occasions like serving as flower boys and girls and performing in music recitals. One salon claims, “We will transform them into fairytale characters, princesses and princes…with our special children’s makeup knowhow.” But in the “after” photos the child looks more unnaturally made up than royal. She also doesn’t look happy, gazing into the camera with no discernible emotion.

Under special criticism is a site that sells kids’ clothes, with a “starter pair of high heels” on offer for little girls. The design isn’t especially controversial; it’s basically a sparkly mary jane. But the idea that girls as young as four should buy their first heels has raised questions about applying adult standards of beauty, or footwear at least, to children, even if one review claims that the buyer’s child “loves it so much!”

Domestic media is largely critical of this trend, explaining it in terms of well-to-do parents’ desire to dote on their children. But the practice is embraced by a growing number of parents. According to internet shopping site Auction, owned by eBay Korea, sales of adulkids products on the site are booming. During the first quarter of this year, sales of makeup for children alone jumped 1,200 percent on the site in comparison to the same period last year.

Such adulkids products include makeup boxes with lip gloss and eyeshadow, nail varnish, and hair wax for toddlers. And, of course, miniature convertibles and 4WD vehicles.

Most people want nice things in life, and I suppose children are no exception. But to what extent does the trend reflect children’s increasingly complex taste, or something else?

Walking to a subway station from my parents’ apartment in southeastern Seoul, I once overheard boys from a nearby elementary school discussing their parents’ cars. “My father has a Benz!” “What class is it? A? S?” They were far more attuned to different categories of luxury vehicles than I ever will be. What I wanted to know then was, do they really understand what these differences signify? Or are these adulkids just vessels for grown-up desire and proclivities, pushed to mature faster in a country where childhood has already lost much of its significance?

It’s one thing to spoil children; it’s quite another to pamper them as though they were adults.

 

Cover Image: adulkid products available for sale on Auction (courtesy of Auction)

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Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University and taught Korean studies at Stanford, Yale, and Ewha Women's University. He has written for The New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera among other publications.