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Breaking the Cycle of Heavy-Handed Holiday Giving Can Be Daunting

Parents have more than just their kids to contend with when planning Christmas shopping.

My wife was browsing through an American Girl catalogue the other day, which are a line of posh dolls for young girls, when something occurred to her. She was reminiscing about the collection she had as a child, about the ones she would receive each year for Christmas from her grandmother. She knew that the dolls were pricey, but as she thumbed the pages an item caught her eye.

“Eighty dollars for a doll bike!,” she blurted out. “I can understand paying that much money for a real bike, but certainly not one for a doll.”

Her astonishment was well taken. I have been thinking quite hard lately about how much money we pour into our children’s wants and whims each Christmas. With each new age increment, my daughter’s gift desires become more costly. And it doesn’t help that her attention span is so short that she loses interest in her new toys just about as quickly as she gets her hands on them.

This phenomenon is nothing new. It’s a cycle that has been churning since the dawn of commercialization. It ensures the desires of children are always fully fed, a hunger which is in turn used to leverage the wallets of us parents. We swear up and down that we won’t get caught up in it. Resistance is nearly futile.

Then and now

It probably wasn’t all that different for my parents. Sure, the technology was different but the pattern was the same: Every year, my toys had to be replaced. Whether it was a Transformer, a G.I. Joe action figure or additions to my Construx set (similar to Legos) my toy collection had to be kept on the cutting edge.

I know that my mom was uneasy with this. My folks came from modest backgrounds, in that their parents never had a lot of expendable income around the holidays. It was never really all that easy to convince her that I had to have anything that wasn’t a true need. I got plenty of Christmas gifts, but I really had to make some tough decisions about which ones I wanted most.

I think it really helped me develop a healthy respect for those things that I did get. I remember having friends as a kid who pretty much got everything they ever wanted for Christmas. Their houses were so overloaded with toys that most went neglected. Regardless of how much they owned it was never enough. They always wanted more.

My girls have more toys than they need, but they certainly don’t get everything they ask for. I plan to keep it that way. My 3-year-old is already making it very clear that everything she sees she wants for Christmas. My wife and I set a dangerous precedent when we gave her pretty much everything she asked for.

Black Friday

This week is really going to be a test for parents. For the first time, the biggest shopping day of the year – “Black Friday” – has been expanded. Many stores are already offering deals that are normally only found on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Others are having sales on items all week long on things that can only be bought online, and some stores have indicated that they plan to open as early as late Thursday evening.

I’ve only partaken in the whole Black Friday experience once. I stood out in the bitter cold at a couple of years ago with my mom in the pitch-black hours of the morning. I think she was hoping to get through the doors early enough to get her hands on a saw of some kind for my brother, who is a carpenter by trade.

Now, this is a rather practical example. There are folks who wait in lines overnight for toys. I can’t fathom this. Nor can I justify it. I can appreciate saving money but not when the quest to do so requires me to buy things I don’t need or didn’t even want to begin with. That is the biggest drawback of Black Friday deals: they draw you in to get what you want, but you often wind up buying so much more.

My wife and I have been game-planning our holiday shopping for a couple of weeks now. We know we can’t buy as much as we did last year, but we don’t want to crush our daughters' hopes either. This week will be an important first step toward striking a balance between the two. Hopefully, we can prove to ourselves we can spend prudently and makes our kids happy.

Marcia Peterson Buckie November 22, 2011 at 03:34 PM
What timely and well worded article. I think this has always been an issue, but I think its even more intense than when I grew up in the 70s. Kids today have access to so much media, they are marketed to constantly. Then with the credit culture that contributed to this recession, the "spending bar" was raised. Now, as families experience mild or significant financial problems, I hear parents worrying about not giving their kid a good Christmas. That pressure really is not necessary. I read an article about this same theme, and it asked the readers to try and remember the presents from their childhoods. Most over 30 could list a few, but it was the shared experiences that meant the most. I am 41 1/2: here is what Iremember: getting a Merlin quiz thingy..a lite Brite and a cowgirl outfit, and a gold bracelet from my brother.
Jerry Grady November 22, 2011 at 06:28 PM
To properly feel this message, I would challenge all the readers to find one family from your school who has not the ability to enjoy the things many of us enjoy. Have your kids give them one gift, no matter how small, and watch them open that gift on Christmas, Hanukkah, and all other religious days this season. Your children will learn the true meaning of Christmas (or the other holidays this season), and you will have left a very special trait in your children's eyes. We are struggling what to give them this Christmas so we do not fall into the "Media Influenced" trap, and I remember dong this a few years ago when my Dad died. This was the best Christmas all my family had. Each year i donate to our annual Christmas for kids at our office and we buy for over 20 families. Unfortunately i do not get to see the excitement on their faces, however, i get to hear of what it really meant to the families who may have lost everything. As you sit down to give thanks this Thanksgiving, say a prayer asking what you can do differently to change the live of someone else. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.
Peg McNichol November 22, 2011 at 10:26 PM
These are really great ideas -- in thinking back, while I remember a few gifts (a certain generic doll that I carried everywhere for a year or so when I was 4-5 years old, a picture book about Florence Nightengale and ... even though it was my sister's gift, a beautifully illustrated book on ballet) -- what I remember more: My grandmother holding up a cluster of sleigh bells and jingling them on Christmas morning. I remember our parents making everyone stay out of the room with the gift-surrounded tree until Dad said it was OK (meaning everyone was awake) and the mad rush to oooh! and ahhh! at the sight before Dad's orderly distribution. I remember seeing the excitement on my sisters' and brothers' faces and mom's joyful expression, of crowding around the piano and singing (probably off-key) songs. Stuff like that. What do you remember of your childhood Christmases?

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