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Return of the Gift: Holiday Consumer Frenzy Got You Down?

Return of the Gift: Holiday Consumer Frenzy Got You Down?

Last year we had a bit of a reprieve, due to the global economic meltdown. But countless bailouts later, we are wallet-deep into Christmas toy hysteria fueled by media and a base reptilian desire to have, rather than have not. The toy on demand this Christmas (in case you are still revising your list) is the cuddly rodent Zhu Zhu Pets, which are essentially furry, low-tech, robotic hamsters. They are cute, yes, and infinitely less of a health hazard than a real hamster (the tag line claims they are “fun without the mess!”). A thorough explanation is hardly necessary (trust me). Let’s just say they are cute, and manufactured to tweak and manipulate all of your children’s raw cute receptors – End of story.

But really the story of holiday consumer yearning and compulsory shopping, just to fulfill media-fueled desire and premature obsession, is something that probably dates back to the Hula-Hoop (actually probably even further back). I remember the rabid hysteria behind the Cabbage Patch Kids, with stories about parents reduced to animal-like savagery to secure a prized doll at any cost (I think the regrettable movie “Child’s Play” was loosely based upon the insatiable want for the doll of the season). I also have clear memories of Star Wars madness in full swing, with zillions of children demanding certain action figures and toys (I being one of them). So economic cycles peak and plummet, but still the machine that fuels our consumer appetite still assembles a tasty array of holiday trappings to get us out of the house (or at least online) and providing that singular experience of having and holding for our coveting children.

I am in the fortunate place (albeit momentary) where my child is almost wholly ignorant of such things as Zhu Zhu Pets and Elmo. I could get away with getting him a truck or a puppet for the holidays, and to him, this is a gift, in the true sense of the word. He lacks media context or reference, and for him, a gift comes as a surprise, and not as the payout after months of nagging and coveting. Like I said, I realize this is privileged position that is liable to change (and change drastically) within the next year or so when he discovers mass culture.

So is it just about just saying no to these base wants and desires and furnishing your children with wooden puzzles and yarn kits instead? Is it wise to give in, or maybe even indulge your children in the hype and rapacious desire for that one special thing? Are we, by act of participation, revealing a weakness of character to our children when we plunk down cash for a Zhu Zhu Pet, Tickle Me Elmo, or toy of the moment? How do you contend with the season and all of the unappeasable desire that comes with it? Are you creative and cunning in your strategy or do you just bend over and take it (insert Zhu Zhu Pets joke here)?

Please share your stories, wisdom, and tips for beleaguered parents below. You know someone, if not everyone, will appreciate it.

Read more: Children, Family, Holidays & Gifts, Parenting at the Crossroads, , , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

21 comments

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6:42PM PST on Jan 6, 2010

Start young.. thats what I did. Hold nothing back from your kids, they are our future. Christmas is NOT about presents. plain and simple. go on follow the rest of the heard to the shopping malls. We are becoming sheeple, not people!

10:46PM PST on Dec 16, 2009

I find that kids these days (mine included) have way too much stuff. My family has always been big on books, so books are always a must for birthdays and christmas. I am also keen on giving clothing for Xmas and Birthdays. As for toys, increasingly I am trying to steer away from most. I try to look for gifts that will be family games, outings, activities or items that will promote activity. Best X-mas present so far was a pogo stick my son received from Santa last year. His record is over 1100 jumps. I allowed my son to look through a catalogue and write down 10 items he wanted (with some help and suggestions from me). When we went to see Santa I reminded him that he had pogo stick on his list -- item on his list that I wanted him to have the most -- and that is what he got. Children need guidance. For his birthday we made a trade. I agreed he could pick an expensive Lego toy item and in return his friends brought donations to the Food Bank. That was the best birthday ever. He never missed the presents. (He is 7 by the way). I also have my children (once again with guidance) pick a toy they would like to receive for Xmas and we give those to the local toy drive. I think it is important for them to know that the giving is not just to them, but also from them.

7:53AM PST on Dec 14, 2009

I don't take part in the shopping frenzy. I have no time. :-)

3:07AM PST on Dec 14, 2009

It is a particularly difficult situation with kids. Although I am a very conscious consumer, I also feel the need for my kids to grow up in the world. I have two children. One of them wants everything, one doesn't care so much. They both know what's out there and they both know I don't particularly care for what's out there. The only difference between them is their personalities. But I don't buy them things based on how desperately they want it. I buy it based on what I believe is right. And if that brings on disappointment or tantrums or whatever reaction, then that is a great learning opportunity for them.

2:03PM PST on Dec 13, 2009

I'm not sure why my girls (6 and 8) care so little about new things. They never asked for any toy, and we, their parents, are not very strict with them so it's not that they're afraid to ask. I wonder if it's because we ourselves care very little for new things, we rarely buy new things, and rarely talk about it.

1:23PM PST on Dec 13, 2009

I remember as a kid, all of the kids in my class were always asking for the same thing for Christmas every year. After the Christmas break was done, we'd all bring our favorite gifts to school to show off. By the end of January, most kids were bored to tears with the latest fad they recieved that year, the same one everyone else begged for and got that year. My sister and I, however, always recieved those kits from the children's art sections in stores (like jewellery making kits, or little crochetting looms). We were still having a blast with those in June, and more than once we asked for re-fill kits for those gifts the next Christmas. No other kids in my class got that much enjoyment out of their toys!

11:22AM PST on Dec 13, 2009

Your stories about CPK and Hula Hoops reminded me of The Year of the Barbie Van when I was 4. Parents of girls my age still talk about that year with horror, as it took several hours to assemble and then several more hours to put all of the stickers on (Santa thought I was careful enough to put the stickers on myself, so my parents got off better than most). But that was probably the best present I ever got. I played with it for years.

Another thing that comes to mind is how not getting the right gift made me stop believing in Santa. It was an honest mistake by parents who hadn't been watching the TV commercials as avidly as my sister and I had, but it had a profound effect on me.

There was a rule in our house that we could only ask for two things from Santa, and that we would only be guaranteed to get one of them. I really don't think that letting kids have what they think they want once a year is going to do them any harm. It gives parents an opportunity to talk with their kids about what they want to get and why. I know there were years when I was a kid that I asked Santa for world peace. If I'd known that my Barbie van was made in a sweatshop, I may not have wanted it. Also, getting kids something that they think they want, but that you know they're going to get bored with by New Year's, gives you an opportunity to teach them about how advertising can mislead us and how putting thought into what you ask for can give longer lasting joy than going with the masses.

8:09AM PST on Dec 13, 2009

As a grandparent -- 18yr down to 8mos -- I decided to to all MY shopping at the bookstore this year.

7:19AM PST on Dec 13, 2009

HAVE A GOOD CHRISTMAS EVERYONE,

5:58AM PST on Dec 13, 2009

My daughter, when she was a child received a few items for the holidays which she enjoyed. It is a time to celebrate with family and friends as well as others. Battling for a particular item and standing in line to get that super "DEAL" is not my idea of enjoyment. Rather then buy that expensive toy perhaps one should cast a few bucks in the Salvation Army bucket or clear out their home and make charitable donations to those less fortunate. Christmas everyone.

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