Parents: Rethink how you gift
Hold up your hands and wave the white flag. Any argument about the holidays being too commercial is over, considering that lighted trees are in some store windows even before summer is officially over.
Still, the trend toward Hallothanksmas doesn’t have to cross the threshold to your home and affect your kids. Specifically, parents don’t have to let three months of marketing bombs force them into guilt and buying their kids mountains of presents.
“I have seen many parents over the years who struggle with guilt about what they don’t give their child, and they overdo the holiday presents in some less-than-conscious attempt to battle back their guilt,” says Gail Saltz, author and professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.
“Along the same lines are parents who feel that success for them means showering their kids with toys to reassure themselves they can afford it, or do something their own parents could not do, or to feel they are great parents,” she adds.
Saltz says because many of these behaviors aren’t conscious, parents have trouble stepping back to see they aren’t doing their children any favors.
To combat this subliminal urge, set your limit ahead of time, says Katie Herrick Bugbee, global parenting expert at Care.com and a mother of three. One example: Two presents from Santa, one big one from mom and dad. Then, she says, divvy up your child’s wish list among relatives. This will all help keep impulse shopping in check.
Bugbee adds “enough is enough” when kids “start looking at the holidays as a chance to just accumulate stuff.” At that point, the underlying symbolism of a holiday — both spiritual and secular — has been lost.
The best gifts, agrees Wendy Middlemiss, associate professor, department of education at the University of North Texas in Denton, are those that retain that connection to the underlying meaning of any holiday: compassion for others.
“Talking to our children about gifts and the meaning of them provides the opportunity to sit and think,” she says. “Can you give a grandparent coupons for ice cream and then make times to go together?
“When we encourage our children to think about gifts such as these, ones that are very special to the receiver and help build a sense of caring and togetherness, we give the gift of thoughtfulness. You can’t easily find that boxed in the local toy store.”
But it’s not necessarily parents who overbuy. For grandparents who think their role is a competitive sport, the holidays offer a prime opportunity to show who’s special by showering the kids with gifts, says Ruth Nemzoff, author and resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
Although parents “Can make suggestions and express their philosophy, they cannot dictate what the grandparents give,” Nemzoff says. “Grandparents, on the other hand, are wise to follow the parents’ suggestions.”
If the grandparents feel strongly about giving extra generously, however, Nemzoff says they can have it both ways by contributing to a college fund — which in turn can lead to conversations between the generations about financial budgeting.
Seana Turner, a professional organizer from Darien, Conn., can offer eyewitness testimony on what holiday gift-giving gone mad can do.
“I’m often called into spaces that are (inundated) with children’s toys,” Turner says. “Children are often overwhelmed by their own toys. They only access those that are their favorites or ‘in front.’ When asked if they want to give something away, they say no, but when a parent does the shedding on their behalf, they almost never miss the items that have been given away.
“Toys and gifts are meant to bring joy, but they seem to bring stress and self-recrimination (in the parents), which is a shame.”
CURBING THE HOLIDAY SPENDING FRENZY
The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, a non-profit organization based in Boston, has a downloadable guide to help adults curb the gift-giving appetite: Go to commercialfreechildhood.org and type “CCFC Guide to Commercial-Free Holidays” in the search field. It offers sections such as putting others’ needs above our own wants; gifts that show you care (homemade); and a blank check to be filled out by each child to a charity of his or her choice. One parent also provided an example of homemade coupons — such as one that let the kids skip their vegetables at a dinner and still get dessert. More advice, much of it adapted from the CCCF:
• Limit kids’ exposure to commercial media.
• Have talks well in advance to shift children’s focus away from getting gifts to other aspects of the holidays _ decorating the tree, attending seasonal concerts, spending time with relatives.
• Read stories about the origins of the holidays you celebrate.
• Emphasize the non-gift giving portions of the holidays. Homemade cookies, anyone?
• Instead of giving your children only toys, give some gifts that are experiential, including the promise of spending time together on a project.
• Emphasize the importance of helping others.