Just say no? It’s getting harder and harder when it comes to the purchase of toys for our children.
Unless your daughter has asked for the $9,500 Wizard of Oz pinball game from Hammacher Schlemmer or your son has put a $25,000 mini Ferrari on his list for Santa, the price of toys that our kids want is actually well within reach of most middle-class families.
Consider the Hatchimal, the talking stuffed animal that is flying off shelves this season. It retails for around $60. Whether it’s a Hot Wheels track or a Disney Princess castle, the most popular toys seem to hover around the $50 mark. Which, oddly, is not that much more than the price of hot toys 20 or 30 years ago. (Cabbage Patch Kids sold for between $30 and $40 when they were released in the early ’80s.)
And while toys continue to be inexpensive, housing and education and health-care costs are rising, so the opportunity cost of buying playthings for our kids has also gone down.
In 1980, average in-state tuition at a public four-year university was a little over $2,000, which meant that if you put away enough of those birthday checks from Aunt Mabel instead of spending them on toys, you could actually put a significant dent in your bill.
But now the cost of toys or clothing or sneakers won’t make a shred of difference in your family’s ability to afford a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood or a better school district, let alone a college education. That means middle-class parents have to invent new reasons to say no to buying new stuff for their kids.
In his book “The Opposite of Spoiled,” Ron Lieber notes that kids who are “far from rich” can still be spoiled. Not just because they always get their way. But because the “lavishing of possessions” upon them can be easily accomplished “depending on how many relatives dote on a child.”
And the effects can be long-term, says Amy Gross, a White Plains-based clinical psychologist who works with children.
“When you give your child everything they desire, they grow up with the misconception that they can and should be given things for the rest of their lives, such as good grades, a job, a new car, etc.” As Gross says, “Children then miss out on the practice of handling frustration, failure, rejection and facing consequences, which can also lead to problems with self-control.”
Ultimately, the only thing standing between kids and immediate gratification are their parents. We can ask friends and relatives to keep the gifts in check. We can request that people make a donation to a cause instead of giving gifts. And we can remind our kids through volunteering that there are many who are less fortunate.
We can make kids earn money or give kids an allowance in order to give them a sense of how much the things they want actually cost. We can encourage them to choose toys that will provide some kind of lasting enjoyment instead of a quick fix.
Parents of small kids sometimes rotate toys — putting some away in a closet so they seem new even when they’re not.
Rather than taking our children to the mall and have them pick out some token for mom or dad, we can remind them that the ones adults like best are the homemade kind.
We can offer kids experiences instead of stuff. People who study human happiness note that we not only enjoy the experience itself but also the excitement leading up to it and the time we spend looking back on it afterward.
Even things that we pay for already — ice-skating lessons, ballet classes, hours at the batting cage — can be gifts if we explain that these are wants, not needs.
And we can try to limit the temptations. Watching commercials, spending time in the mall, even leaving circulars from Target around the house are all things that make children think they want things.
Limiting the time that older kids spend on social media will also mean less time for them to ogle their friends’ possessions.
None of this is easy, especially living in 21st century America. But, as Gross notes, “When children learn to find contentment only through wish fulfillment, general happiness can be elusive and fleeting.”
Of course, the fact that toys are cheap now doesn’t mean they always will be. Who knows what the next holiday season will bring? There’s nothing like a trade war with China to make sure that your children don’t get spoiled.