Parenting Traps

The gifted child

Is it possible to give without promoting materialism?

By Hayley Kaufman
December 6, 2009

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The catalog lay open on the coffee table, and I knew there was going to be trouble. The holidays are looming (we celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas) and a glossy toy catalog -- full of whimsical, colorful, educational playthings -- had fallen into the wrong hands: my children’s hands.

I don’t much like toys. I don’t like the way the pieces always get lost, and then found -- ouch! -- just as I’m walking barefoot across the kitchen floor. I don’t like the way they hijack corners of my house, where they’re stacked precariously in lieu of any real organization. Mostly I don’t like the way they’re tossed aside as soon as a shinier, faster, newer toy makes its debut.

Allow me to haul myself out of what will surely be perceived as bad-mommy hell. I enjoy seeing my kids play -- with toys, without toys, wearing mismatched dress-up clothes, you name it. The anarchy and hilarity of children’s play is one of the highlights of parenthood. The unending stream of toys that floods our home each December is not.

At 3 and 5, my kids are too young to be fixated on brand names or labels, but they’re not too young to feel entitled. When my daughter heard that her very generous aunt was coming to visit, her eyes grew wide with joy. “She’s bringing me lots of presents, right?” I shuddered. I suppose that’s my biggest problem with this time of year: the expectation that when it comes to stuff, we always need more.

A 2007 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that materialism spikes in early adolescence in kids with low self-esteem; they look at acquiring things as a way of bolstering their self-worth. (Not unlike adults.) But researchers also found that increasing a child’s self-esteem diminishes the focus on stuff for validation.

That’s when it hit me: Perhaps my focus on stuff -- my stewing about consumption, my fear of raising materialistic tots -- is part of the problem. Maybe my kids are better off if I ignore the toys and the clothes and the doodads this holiday season and just focus on them.

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Should kids get fewer presents?

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