The pressures of prom

Pam Frampton
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“Though I don't buy into lame clichés, an experience is made memorable by the people with which it is shared, not by the luxuries purchased for that experience.”

— Collin Labak, a graduating student at Hinsdale South High School in Darien, Ill., quoted in the May 6, 2011 Darien Patch


Our daughter’s prom was last weekend, and it was inspiring to see so many shining faces and fancy dresses, dapper suits and natty ties.

And it was a pleasure to see her gliding radiantly through the crowd in her elegant blue dress, mingling and laughing with her wonderfully warm and well-spoken circle of friends.

For high school graduates, it’s a time to celebrate achievements and friendships; to experience the bittersweet feelings of ending one era and the nervous excitement of beginning another.

For parents, there is a sense of undeniable pride that your child has blossomed into a responsible young adult, bursting with promise, with their own sense of identity, style and ambition.

Every parent wants the best for their child, and prom is no different. No one wants their son or daughter to feel diminished among their peers, and so people spend serious cash on the many accoutrements. Manicure. Tux rental. Corsage. Pedicure. Tanning. Limo. New shoes. Salon services. Dress. Jewelry. Private receptions. Hotel rooms. Dinner tickets. Safe grad tickets. Group breakfasts. Group lunches. Group dinners. Taxi fares. Presents. Portraits. Party buses.

Talking to friends and colleagues who also recently attended high school graduations, a common question emerges: what if you can’t afford to outfit your child in the style to which they aspire?

Has prom gone too far?

Formerly affordable

I’ve heard plenty of stories in the past week from parents recalling the affordable simplicity of their own graduations: homemade decorations in the high school, a few brief speeches, a march of graduates, family pictures under a fairy-lit archway, parents sent home, a dance in the gym.

That’s pretty much how mine went, too, minus the march. At least, I don’t think there was a march.

This may come as a shock to kids in the graduating class of 2011, but I don’t even remember that much about prom. Even special memories can fade with time. I do recall a bad perm, a navy-blue dress with an appliquéd butterfly, my red velvet bedspread used as the backdrop for the photos, which were taken by our French teacher.

Now, I’m not saying high school graduation shouldn’t be celebrated — far from it. Our daughter’s prom had a Hollywood theme and it went off without a hitch, thanks to the hard work of parents and teachers and the students themselves — all of whom clearly see the end of secondary education as a legitimate milestone worth honouring.

They deserve festivities and congratulations.

Beyond reach

But I can’t help thinking of families who simply cannot afford even the basic trappings of prom. Let’s face it, $70 or $80 a pop for one dinner is simply beyond some people’s reach.

Should parents put themselves in debt to send their teen to prom? Should teens stay home in shame because they can’t afford to dress for a graduation dance the way their more affluent friends can? Should parents skip the ceremony because they can’t afford the cost of admission?

There are schools all over North America grappling with the problem of prom. Some create clothing banks, with donated dresses and suits and shoes where needy students and their parents can borrow prom clothes.

Other schools set aside so many “scholarship” dinner tickets for students whose parents can’t afford to spring for a fancy meal at a hotel. Some towns send out squads of hairdressers-in-training to provide styling services to grads who can’t afford to shell out big bucks for an up-do.

These are all well-intentioned ideas.

Here’s another one: instead of coming up with creative ways to help less-well-off kids fit with the program, why not tone down the program to be more inclusive and affordable?

Being a teenager is tough enough, let alone when you’re being judged by the cost of your dress and the brand name of your shoes. Perhaps prom needs to return to simpler, less expensive times so some students don’t feel stigmatized.

Prom is supposed to be about and for the graduates, but that’s not how it goes if the grad can’t afford to attend his or her own party.

There will always be students who are better off than others; that is an inescapable fact. And there’s nothing to stop families who can afford it from having lavish celebrations for their grad on their own time and their own dime.

But we don’t have to emphasize students’ financial disparities by pricing prom beyond the grasp of some of the very people it’s supposed to celebrate.

After all, one high school diploma is as worthy as another, whether the person who earned it shops at Goodwill or The Gap.


Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at

Twitter: pam_frampton

Organizations: Hinsdale South High School

Geographic location: Darien, Ill., Hollywood, North America

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Recent comments

  • Colleen O'Keefe
    June 12, 2011 - 19:24

    Excellent article; I couldn't agree more. We all buy into it though and are part of the problem. What parent is going to be the one to say - this is too much. I think it has to come from the schools and the parent volunteers. I just attended my daughter's Grade 12 grad - a very formal, "convention-like" affair. I would have much preferred an informal event where everyone is more relaxed; and I surmise the students would say the same thing. Only group who made out was the convention centre. Can you beleive they charge $4 for a glass of water ? You wouldn't pay this at the Ritz Carlton !

  • mary
    June 12, 2011 - 12:01

    Who are the people who are suppposed to read and heed this article? Do the people at the school board office decide what each Grad is going to be, what it will involve? Is it the teachers and principal? What is the role of the parents in all of this? What happened to the Safe Grad and is there any point in even having that event?

  • Jack-a-roo
    June 11, 2011 - 21:00

    Great article Pam. I couldn't agree with you more. I will have to face the prom madness in another year with my child, and although it's a year away she is already planning what she wants, and how do you not give to her what other students will have. I hope the right person at the school board level reads your article and makes the decision to scale the huge expense back, but at the same time continue to recognize the student's achievements. Congratulations to your daughter on her grade 12 achievement.

  • David
    June 11, 2011 - 09:20

    Where would teenagers get such a twisted sense of what a prom is supposed to be or cost? Take a look at the phenomenon of weddings...financed by people who are supposedly "adults". We are simply too gullible, too shallow, and too stupid to help ourselves....the economy is built on it.

  • Harvey
    June 11, 2011 - 09:07

    Pam, this is long overdue...excellent article!!! I just hope that the right people read and heed.

  • Busy Bayman
    June 11, 2011 - 08:12

    Great article!! And so very true...

  • Kc
    June 11, 2011 - 08:11

    Pam, the sad fact is that if you can't afford prom, you do not go. So how is that inclusive? The current philosophy of the Department of Education is inclusiveness yet in many ways, so many schools are not. The prom mentality has moved down at the junior high level as well. Students in grade 9 expect the same sorts of events for their school leaving. Fortunately, my child goes to a junior high which is very inclusive and does not follow the lead of other junior highs. Their school leaving is an evening of fun in partnership with the city of St. John's. Students arrived to a Carnival and were asked to dress in gym clothes. There were bouncy castles, Velcro wall, psychic readings and a BBQ prepared by teachers among numerous other things! The most noteworthy point about this event was that every student in the graduating class attended except for 1 student who was away. How many other schools could boast that fact?

    • Pam Frampton
      June 11, 2011 - 09:36

      KC -- you're right, that's not inclusive, which was exactly my point.