Christmas, Materialism and TOYS

Child Psychologist and play expert Amanda Gummer has warned parents not to give in to pressure and buy kids lots of expensive toys this Christmas. (Research, carried out by UK-based supermarket chain Sainsbury’s and reprted in Metro on 30th November, has found that parents spend an average of £104.40/US$167 on each child.) She thinks that the lists of top toys released at this time of year - and of course advertising - add to the pressure on parents. She advises: “Don’t give in to the pressure from the media and the school playground to buy the most expensive, latest toys on the market. Often toys that children will play with over and over again don’t make it into the top 10 lists.” (click here to see Amanda’s article).

In Carl Honoré’s book Under Pressure he explores the nature of modern toys and looks particularly at electronic toys and toys like iTeddy which do all the child’s thinking for them and concludes that these do not allow for the child’s imagination to grow. Simpler toys like dolls, construction kits, train sets and cars, ‘house’ items like kitchen sets provide the richest experience for children because they can use their own imagination more. Many parents have had the experience of the child unwrapping an expensive, complicated gizmo at Christmas only to find it discarded and the child playing with the box it came in a week later. The Stockholm based International Toy Research Centre concludes that what children really need is time without external input so that they can process their own experiences. Many modern toys superimpose someone else’s story on the users. There has even been a change in Lego from simple bricks which allow the child to create and problem solve to sets with specific dedicated pieces and instructions which dictate what should be made. If children get spoon fed everything, even in play, their imaginations close down, they don’t develop the ability to pursue sustained thought and they get bored easily, always looking for the next electronic stimulus or experience. This can make it hard for children to focus at school. It also means that children get tired of these toys quicker.

In fact at The Parent Practice we were pleased to see a mix of traditional toys on one list of top toys for 2012 (John Lewis’s top ten list) –these included dolls houses, scooters, Lego and Furbys and other soft toys as well as some electronic toys.

This might help guide parents’ choices about what type of gift to give their children but they may still be concerned about how much children get at Christmas and whether or not their children appreciate what they are given.

Last year UNICEF UK released a report entitled Child well-being in the UK, Spain and Sweden: The role of inequality and materialism. The UK did not compare well with Spain and Sweden in terms of the well-being of children and the role of consumer products in their lives. “…in Spain and Sweden the pressure to consume appeared much weaker and the resilience of children and parents much greater than in the UK. Families in the UK appear to face greater pressures on their time and money, and react to this in ways they feel are counter productive to children’s well-being….Most children agreed that family time was more important to them than consumer goods, yet we observed within UK homes a compulsion on the part of some parents to continually buy new things for their children and for themselves. Boxes of toys, broken presents and unused electronics in the home were witness to this drive to acquire new possessions. Most parents realised that what they were doing was often ‘pointless’, but seemed somehow pressurised and compelled to continue.”

It is real juggling act raising children in the 21st century, where instant gratification has become the norm, where shopping has become a leisure activity and status is defined by what we own. The shops and TV screens are full of enticements, no more so than in the run up to Christmas…. and everyone wants everything….. and they want it now!

As loving parents, we want our children to have the best we can give, we want to show them how much we love them, and, at the same time, we want them to be appreciative of what they have and learn to value their possessions. Many parents are concerned about falling into the trap of over-indulging their children, fearing that their children will grow up to be overly acquisitive and never satisfied, unable to appreciate the true cost of things or differentiate between their needs and their wants.

So how can we instill in our children the values we want and we believe will equip them best for the future, and yet not always have to be the bad cop, saying no, no, no….?

There is one immediate and relatively simple way we can help our children.

We can protect them from the constant advertising which tells them that their value is tied up in what they own and that they need to acquire certain goods in order to fit in. We need to let them know that they are ‘worth it’ even without the advertised product. We can limit their exposure to TV adverts by cutting down on screen-time, or using TiVo, and we can discuss with older children the role of advertising and the manipulation involved. Most kids like the idea of not being conned by the conglomerates!

And then it comes down to being clear and true to our values, and communicating this effectively to our children.

So, first, we need to establish what our values are. We need to ask ourselves what does Christmas mean to us and what is the place for gift giving and receiving? What do we want our children to grow up believing is important? What values do we want them to inherit? Are we buying too much for our children?  These may be uncomfortable questions to answer honestly.

The UNICEF report suggests that there are high levels of social insecurity in the UK which is compensated for by buying status brands. Is it also because we feel guilty about the amount of time we are able to spend with them as is suggested in the report? Is it because we want them to enjoy what we never had? Some parents interviewed for the UNICEF report suggested that they wanted status brands for their children to protect them from the kind of bullying they experienced themselves as kids. Do we not know other ways to make them feel worthwhile? Has the availability of relatively cheap goods made us lazy and undiscerning about consumer choices? Do we buy because we can’t bear to see them unhappy and we are unable to say no?

Having clarified our values, we now have to communicate them to our children.

Children learn by copying as much as by what we say to them. So we can talk about what our values are but this will be for nought if our own behaviour doesn’t live up to what we say we believe in. So if we believe in moderation and then buy each child a mountain of gifts we are not walking our talk. If we say we think Christmas should be about others and do nothing to encourage them to think of anyone other than themselves we are just paying lip service.

Giving – before focussing on what they want to receive, involve children in giving – it
can be just as much fun!
* Can they select a family member to choose a gift for?  Discuss the budget and what the person enjoys and will enjoy getting. Don’t just buy a gift for your child to give without involving them.
* Can they give to others less fortunate? Can you organise a toy tidy-out and donate old toys or books to the local hospital, can they arrange to bake some Christmas goodies and take them to a local children’s home? Even if they’re involved in some kind of charitable activity at school it would really reinforce this as a family value if you did something at home as well. Last year the Oxfam goat was sold out – so get there early if you would like to give a female goat to a needy family in countries like Malawi.   www.oxfam.org.uk
* Can they think of non-material gifts?  Home made gifts can be wonderful and really appreciated. Bake cookies or make confectionery with the children or get them to write a story or poem and illustrate it or even make a power point story for someone else.

Receiving – many parents worry about increasing piles of unwanted toys.
* Can you set up a system so people club together to buy one gift for your child – that they really, really want? Some families eschew the idea of buying for huge numbers and instead concentrate their energies and resources on buying one gift on behalf of the wider family. We do this in my extended family (32 and growing) and choose the donor and recipient by drawing names out of a hat each year.
* Can they practice how to receive gifts with grace even if they don’t really love them – or have the item already. Use role plays.
* Take your time – we wait 364 days for Christmas yet the giving and receiving of gifts often happens in a few frantic minutes of unwrapping. Can they be Santa’s Little Helper and give out the gifts?
* Saying thank you – writing letters may seem very old-fashioned, but young children can do a drawing, or dictate a letter to you. Older children could Skype or send an email.

We can also model appreciation by being appreciative ourselves, and noticing and mentioning it whenever they are. This might sound like: “I love it when you say thank-you for the things I do for you. It’s polite, and makes me feel really appreciated.” or “You’re taking really good care of your new train set –you put it away very carefully in its box each time you’ve finished with it.”  Obviously you’ll love whatever they give you for Christmas –one can never have too many novelty ties or socks or ‘cute’ little trinkets. My now grown up children marvel that I found a use for or display place (in my bathroom) for the holiday souvenirs they brought me. Tip: little shell covered boxes are a great place to keep safety pins. None of you will do what my husband’s great grandmother did when she asked who’d given her ‘this ridiculous thing’ as she discarded a gift from one of her children!

Chat throughs
When we prepare for Christmas many of us prepare endless lists of things to do and things to buy but we often don’t prepare our children except for revving them up for the arrival of Santa. If we want to encourage particular behaviours in our children we need to chat through with them beforehand what we expect. This is not a lecture and in fact they should do most of the talking as they are far more likely to do what they say they need to do.

Ask them questions – what will happen on the day, what are they looking forward to and what might be difficult, what behaviour is expected at different points, in church, at the table, when opening presents etc, and how might the child feel….They need to do the talking if they are to be committed to what needs to happen.  It is important to empathise that the child may feel very excited and get a bit wild, when it comes to receiving presents they may want to rush to open them, they may be disappointed with what they receive, they may feel jealous of what others are given, and young children often get overwhelmed. We can ask how the child could handle these feelings – some ideas include telling the parent or using some safe venting technique like stamping feet or pounding their fists or taking some time out in their own room if you’re at home.  It’s really important we don’t make our children wrong for any of their feelings.

If our children have a meltdown, we need to keep calm – remembering children feel things very intensely in the moment but these feelings pass, and remembering too that it is not our job to keep them happy in the moment; instead it is our job to enable them to make themselves happy in the future, by developing self-control and problem-solving skills. What won’t work is to tell them off for their ungratefulness or other less desirable behaviour.

We are more effective when we can empathise with our children, imagining how they are feeling and reflecting it back to them in words. This is the first step in helping our children understand and manage their feelings. This might sound like: “You wish you could have a car like Jamie’s. You really like it -maybe because it’s so shiny and it’s got cool tires. You know what? I’m proud of you for only making a little fuss about this. I know you’re disappointed and you’re finding it hard to focus on the great things you’ve been given right now. When you’ve given yourself a little time I know  you’ll choose one of your own toys to play with.”

Although this may not result in an immediate improvement in behaviour, it does show the child that they are understood and their feelings are accepted, even though their behaviour needs to be re-directed.

Overall, it pays to take time to prepare and train ourselves and our children how best to cope with life in today’s modern material world. It may help to bear in mind the following tough advice from Dr. Phil McGraw,  psychologist and author:
“Your child does not have to love you every minute of every day. He’ll get over the disappointment of having been told ‘no.’ But he won’t get over the effects of being spoiled.”

Wishing you Happy Holidays and a lovely time being with your families.

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