How to Get a Grip on the Holiday 'Gimmes'

Teaching Children the Real Meaning of the Holidays

It's coming ... a season ostensibly about peace on earth and goodwill toward all. But which is increasingly about getting a whole heap of stuff. Particularly if you have children.

While we spent a few halcyon years with three kids who hadn't quite adopted the whole demand-and-ye-shall-receive mentality, it seems that particular Christmas miracle is over. This year, my kids started their Christmas list in September. My five-year-old son's list already includes a life-sized bumper car, a remote-control rocket ship that really goes into outer space and a horse dressed in medieval armor that he plans to ride to school. I had to point out to my eight-year-old daughter that she's listed items that she already owns-she's lost track. And my youngest, at three, wants only one thing: a spaceship, which is what my son has told her she wants. Sigh. What's a mother-fed up with over-consumption (not to mention cleaning up toys!)-to do?

Well, my plan is already in place.

The toy cull

Going through the ghosts of Christmas pasts, we've packed up those toys that the kids have outgrown or simply lost interest in to be given to charity. Broken toys got fixed or tossed. My kids rediscovered toys they'd forgotten and realized, at least for a moment, that their bounty was vast.

Instill a limit

My kids were told that they are guaranteed two gifts each-one from Santa and one from their father and me. Anything else is to be considered a bonus. Since all three of my children receive a small allowance, they have some understanding of money and I didn't hesitate to tell them that certain things (life-sized bumper cars! medieval horses!) are simply too expensive, not to mention impractical. We also encouraged them to think beyond toys-would they like to take certain lessons? What about a visit to somewhere special? Movie passes?

Help children to become critical thinkers

Plenty of experts insist that children need to be taught early about advertising, especially with the average North American child watching 40,000 commercials per year. My older two understand that the kids they see in ads are being paid to look like they're having fun. We talked about toys they've been disappointed in and how they looked like they'd be so much more fun from the box.

My friend, almost an empty nester now, recalls the year her six-year-old son was desperate for Bowling Snoopy. According to the television ad that beguiled young Matthew, this particular Snoopy was a bowling buddy by day-one spring-loaded arm would swing back then follow through, knocking down pins in champion style-and a snuggly bed buddy by night. Though delighted to find his desired gift under the tree Christmas morning, Matthew found cuddling with a hard plastic beagle none too comfortable. And the bowling arm frequently wound up in the night and released... waking Matthew with a solid thwack to the head and waking his parents with a bellowed "ouch" from Matthew. It wasn't long before Snoopy was sent back to the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm... so to speak.

Preach, but gently

Though my kids frequently roll their eyes at me, I do tend to wax on about how the holidays are really about being together, having fun and celebrating the love in our lives (and, of course, a celebration of any faith your family might have). And though my eldest snapped at me the other day that she's "tired of hearing about the poor people," she also has her own plan to purchase a gift for a child in Africa. Maybe it's just holiday wishful thinking on my own part, but I think my plan is working...

Excerpted from The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World

Leslie Garrett is an award-winning journalist and author of The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World (and one our kids will thank us for!). 

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