Buy a better holiday

Editorial - December 2004


We have reached that most magical time of year. These are weeks of celebrations, reconnecting with family, remembering all that is good and great about our lives and feeling at peace with the world.

What? That isn’t what happens to you when Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Winter Solstice rolls around? Could it be because you are coping with overstimulated children running on fuel provided by too many sweets and too many messages from Madison Avenue? Might you be worried about how fulfilling all their wishes will affect your family budget?

Please know you are not alone. This time of the year, more than any other, we parents truly are all in this together. We’re all slogging down the toy aisles with bleary eyes and maxed-out credit cards. And we’re all battling the marketing monster that has gripped our children.

And it’s a huge and powerful monster—one that got us to buy $30.6 billion worth of toys in 2002. That’s billion, with a b.

Fear not, gentle readers. There is hope.

One of our favorite warriors in the battle against the commercialization of childhood is Susan Linn, a child psychologist and author of Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood. Her terrific book aims to help parents fight this war against mass marketers who spent $15 billion—again, that’s billion with a b—marketing their wares directly at our children.

In her perfect world—and ours, too—there would be a law banning marketing directly to children. The American Psychological Association and a coalition of groups is pushing for a law banning advertising on TV to children under age 8. Sadly, that’s not going to happen any time soon. Instead, we offer advice from Linn:

• Build time into the holidays that has nothing to do with consumerism, but everything to do with enjoying your family. At the very least, spend time talking about the real meaning of the holidays to your family—whether religious or secular.

• Tell stories that reflect your values. Linn likes a book called The Spotted Pony: A Collection of Hanukkah Stories that offers a story illustrating a different value for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah. She’s been reading it with her daughter since she was in preschool as a way to spend some commercial-free time as a family.

• Teach a lesson about wants by not giving your children every toy on their wish list. Linn says she knows of parents who decree they will not buy anything the children have seen advertised. That might be too radical, but try a modified version—a homemade gift certificate for family time, a movie, meal or a museum visit.

• Talk about commercialism and consumerism with your kids. Even younger children can understand that some toys fall apart as soon as they start playing with them. Older kids can understand more complex concepts such as value and values—whether a toy is worth the price and whether it violates your  beliefs, as a violent toy might.

• Help your children think about others. For example, spend a day thinking about what to get Daddy, to help them see the holidays as a time of giving, not just receiving.

Those tips can help us through the holiday rough spots. But for the long term, we have added a new financial columnist, Susan Beacham. She will provide ongoing advice for helping you teach your children learn the values of money. Her column debuts this issue and will appear every other month.

And, of course, this month we bring you our Annual Totally Unscientific Toy Test, in which kids tell us what works and what doesn’t. The biggest news: A toy that has very little marketing muscle behind it, Magna-Tiles made by LaGrange-based Valtech, was a consistent hit across age groups, while another toy that is all over Saturday morning television, LEGO’s Clikits, was a consistent loser across age groups for a second year in a row.

We hope these tips lead you to a more joyful, peaceful and affordable holiday. Above all, we hope you remember, as Linn says: “Really, the most important thing we can give our children is our values.”

Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. Peaceful Kwanzaa and a cheerful Winter Solstice to all.

Kids Eat Chicago

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