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The Debate: Are We Too Materialistic?

In Wednesday's The Holiday-Birthday Mashup comments, many readers piped in with great thoughts about celebrating birthdays and the holidays. Clearly, most of us are comfortable with the gift-giving that we do for these events.

And those concerned about the glut of gifts in the house do a few things to minimize it:

For instance, sciencemom "had my daughter do a 'cleaning out' of her old toys. I told her she had to give some toys away to other babies in order to make room for any toys that Santa brings her. We didn't buy her that many gifts for Christmas or her birthday (probably something like 5 relatively small gifts for each), but when they are coming all at once, they can take over the house!"

And from foamgnome:

"On Christmas day, our daughter unwraps all the gifts and plays with just a few. We put the rest away in about a week after the holidays (again because her birthday comes shortly after the holiday). Then every month or so, we take out a "new" Christmas toy. So you just take out the ones that are older towards the end of the year. My daughter was "getting new" toys till October. Then in November/December, the new Christmas stuff starts to come in again. It worked out well for us. Stuff we think that she won't ever use or use for 10 minutes, gets given to Toys for Tots, preschool, day care or used for a few weeks and then given to charity. It worked well for us. But it takes some effort, storage space, and memory of where you put it all!"

Some parents request no gifts on party invitations; others donate birthday gifts to charity.

That same day, the topic of Hanukkah and gifts prompted an interesting discussion with an Israeli woman I know who now lives in the U.S. In Israel, she says, her family gives a little money to the kids the first and last nights of Hanukkah. It's not the gift-giving festival that we Americans have turned it into. Her impression is that few Israeli families treat the holiday with such glut as we do.

So, today's debate question is this? Do we put too much emphasis on toys, books and other presents during these winter holidays and at birthdays? What about the rest of the year? How do you balance the give and take that inevitably comes with raising kids?

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By Stacey Garfinkle |  December 7, 2007; 8:00 AM ET  | Category:  The Debate
Previous: Get Your Game On | Next: Pay Up; I Just Gave Birth


I think in general, we absolutely give too many presents for Christmas/Hanukkah. I think the other thing is with two parents working, there is a little more extra cash. So we tend to pick up some of the smaller items through out the year. I know with my friends and family, most kids gets around 20-30 gifts for the holidays. And through out the year, small things come. Also some people make the minor holidays (Valentine's Day, Halloween, Easter (not minor religiously), and other type of events) small gift giving opportunities. I also think all extended family gets in on the deal. I think in prior generations, kids did not get gifts from every grandparent, aunt, uncle and family friend. But how do you stop it? You want your child to enjoy part of your wealth and give them things that you did and did not have. I am open to suggestions.

Posted by: foamgnome | December 7, 2007 8:18 AM | Report abuse

We got a few things for the kids, but not 8 gifts. It's excessive, considering what my MIL does, and my DH's family, etc. It's just way out of hand. And overwhelming for the kids.

Our religious school came up with a great idea - they're going to have a list of stuff they need, with prices, and they suggested that for one night of hanukkah, families should buy something for the religious school. This is so sensible. Our house is overrun with stuff that we really haven't even bought!

At my DS's last birthday party, we had a book exchange. Everyone brought a book, and went home with another book. So no presents - and no me having to do gift bags either! win-win for everyone!

The problem is that with toys so cheap, everyone keeps buying them. *sigh* we have an email list in our neighborhood, so definitely things get sold around, but it's still SO MUCH STUFF.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | December 7, 2007 8:29 AM | Report abuse

As someone with no kids, who enjoys spoiling other people's kids (OPKs) - it's ok to tell me what you want/need for your child, or that it's already too much. I'm an "aunty" to many friends' children, and no matter how cute all the toys are when I pass them in Wal-Mart, or how adorable that little dress is, I do my best to respect parent's wishes. So communicate - ask your friends to buy clothes, or diapers, if that's what you need. Tell your mom that baby doesn't need 15 adorable holiday dresses, since Christmas dinner/church/Chanukah parties etc. only require 1 or 2 of these adorable outfits, that baby will outgrow/spit up on. Let your sister know that you're trying really hard to teach your 8 year old the meaning of Christmas, and that in your house it's not about opening presents on Christmas morning. Yes, people will still buy gifts, and you can't stop everyone. But maybe someone will make a donation to an appropriate organization in your child's name instead, or give to toys for tots instead, and you will have fewer gifts to deal with, less stress, and maybe an opportunity to help your children learn your values.

Posted by: jb | December 7, 2007 8:52 AM | Report abuse

This is my daughter's first Christmas, and her first birthday is in January. I'm a little scared! 20-30 gifts?!?! Ack! My husband and I got her a personalized bean bag that will hopefully last her through college. (It's a good thing to climb now). I asked for a wagon, tricycle, and climbing mats, all big ticket items, from the grandparents. Other than that, if anyone else asks, I'll request books or summer clothes. I have a feeling there is going to be a mountain of plastic heading our way...

Posted by: atb2 | December 7, 2007 9:06 AM | Report abuse

I am with jb - tell me what you need -- I have a request from my boyfriend's SIL to focus on books and earlier this year I bought my honorary niece a new swimsuit for the summer season. For those trying to encourage reading in younger ages check out Cricket Magazine -- they even have a publication called Babybug targeted at 18 months to 3 years. The beauty of this gift is that a child will get mail every month which adds to the fun.

Posted by: tntkate | December 7, 2007 9:12 AM | Report abuse

I like giving my kids gifts - who doesn't? As long as they don't exhibit a spoiled or entitled attitude and express gratitude for what they are given, I see no problem with giving them more than a few gifts at holiday time. We do both Hanukkah and Christmas so my kids probably do get more than most, some big and some small, but at least for now, they are surprised every time and grateful.

Posted by: Robyn | December 7, 2007 9:13 AM | Report abuse

My big brother always arranges a "big" gift that we can contribute to for his two daughters. That way his girls get something they really want and we don't have to worry about them hating our gift. Works for all of us.

Posted by: olney | December 7, 2007 9:13 AM | Report abuse

It can be hard for me to resist the "gotta-have-its", especially when I see my kid playing with and loving some of the toys her friends have. I often find myself thinking "but she'd love that so much!", and being tempted to buy her something for no reason. The problem seems to peak around June, when there are no gift-giving occasions in sight.

We're trying, though, not to go overboard. DD just had a birthday, and we gave her a playhouse (bought used off of Craig's List)and a play-doh set that cost less than $10. For Christmas, she's getting a tricycle (probably also used), a book, a puzzle and a few stocking stuffers. I can think of at least five more toys I think she'd love, but I know she doesn't need them.

Posted by: NewSAHM | December 7, 2007 9:23 AM | Report abuse

second the Cricket suggestion (although it's off-topic) My kids have loved the whole series of these magazines which really encourage reading and are simply written without being condescending. On the broader topic of materialism, I think it's true that we all get a bit carried away by the availability of adorable chep goods that (maybe) we'd like to play with ourselves. In our house it was an explosion of adorable stuffed animals I still can't bring myself to give away (all those soulful plastic eyes..) My kids seem to have survived; they are remarkably relaxed about what they're getting for Christmas and more concerned about what to get each other.

I would (timidly) suggest that the Santa Claus myth, which is supposed to symbolize generosity (the original St. Nick supposedly gave dowries to poor girls so they could marry, if I recall), has the unintended consequence of promoting materialism, because it suggests to children and their parents that Christmas should be about a huge bagful of gifts. I never much liked the Santa game and dropped it as soon as possible, although I know other parents who enjoy the tradition as much as their kids.

Posted by: lurkette | December 7, 2007 10:00 AM | Report abuse

With 5 kids, Christmas is not a huge gift-giving extravaganza in our house (we make a bigger deal out of birthdays). Santa usually brings one really wanted gift and Mom and Dad buy a few small things. Grandma and Grandpa tend to be the ones who over indulge. The girls make homemade gifts for each other and we do go through our house after Thanksgiving and donate a box or two of gently used toys to the local women's shelter. This year we also made small gingerbread houses (out of graham crackers) and brought them to the food pantry at a local church to deliver with their holiday meal bags. It was a lot of fun for the kids becauuse they each made several and it saved me from having 20 extra "treats" to eat.

Posted by: michelewilson | December 7, 2007 10:09 AM | Report abuse

For us, having a small house has cut down on a lot of this. We just don't have the space!

I will probably get DD one or two toys for Christmas (she's just 2.5, and I'm sure she'll get a few things from relatives.) But I will not hesitate to buy her a new book or toy during the year if I see something that I think she would get a lot of use out of and it's something we can afford. But in all honestly, it doesn't happen very often. At this age they really don't need much, and going to Trader Joe's to get a balloon is as exciting as an expensive toy, anyway.

Oh, and my daughter also loves babybug.

Posted by: reston, va | December 7, 2007 10:12 AM | Report abuse

The thing that bothered me about foamgnome's post yesterday was the comment that she feels it is rude to tell people not to bring a gift to her daughter's birthday party. It is an understandable sentiment. No one likes being told what to do, and being told to stifle a generous sentiment is particularly . . . odd. But we have done this for every birthday party so far -- and it is quite common in our neighborhood/ mileux to send out invitations that state "no gifts please" or "may your presence be your gift". IT's bossy, it's presumptuious-- but how else to make it clear that our family is trying to avoid materialism without coming across as rude and insulting? People still manage to have a great time at the parties even without the gift giving, so whatever rudeness people experience I hope is alleviated by the positives. (No goody bags-- I figure since we aren't accepting presents, we don't have to deal with goody bags.) The book giving idea is cool, but I feel even less comfortable telling people what gifts I would want them to bring to a party as I am asking them not to bring any gifts!

Posted by: capitol hill mom | December 7, 2007 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Ug, I could write a novel on this issue. I grew up in a family where Christmas was all about church and family. I sang in the Messiah, we went to church on Christmas Eve AND Christmas Day. We had friends over for a holiday party and had decorations that went back generations. My grandmother's cooking was legendary. But the presents themselves were always modest - and to this day my family spends under $100 per family member.

My in-laws, on the other hand, are the polar opposites when it comes to Christmas and I'm having a hard time getting adjusted to it. My FIL and MIL send us their "Christmas wishlists" every year - usually MIL's totals over $500 and we're expected to get what is on the list. (This year she wants Cole Haan boots and a Coach gold bracelet). We easily spend $2000 or more on his family each year, plus the plane tickets to go see them (2 parents, 3 grandparents and an aunt and uncle, no kids). And in return, we get thousands of dollars worth of presents from them. It is obscene, but because it is what my husband (an only child) grew up with, he doesn't see anything wrong with it. As my daughter gets older (she's 3), I'm afraid of the influence that will have on her. I can only try to teach her that presents themselves are no indication of how much her family loves her. My DH and I do try to tone it down when it comes to what "Santa" gives her - one or two presents is usually all she gets from us.

I'm not sure how to approach DH about this without REALLY upsetting him; I've tried it in the past and he thinks I'm being ungrateful. I'm just worried about the (bad) example this is setting for our DD.

Posted by: PLS | December 7, 2007 10:30 AM | Report abuse

PLS- Wow. That's quite a tradition. I guess your DH thinks you're attacking his family and gets super defensive. Does he ENJOY the tradition, or just tolerate it? Send this into Hax at noon today and see what she has to say.

Posted by: atb | December 7, 2007 10:38 AM | Report abuse

"I know with my friends and family, most kids gets around 20-30 gifts for the holidays."


Posted by: anonforfriday | December 7, 2007 10:38 AM | Report abuse

"For those trying to encourage reading in younger ages check out Cricket Magazine -- they even have a publication called Babybug targeted at 18 months to 3 years. The beauty of this gift is that a child will get mail every month which adds to the fun."

National Wildlife Federation has neat magazines, too -- Baby Animals, Your Big Backyard, and Ranger Rick -- takes them from toddler to mid-elem. school. That's what I get for my friend's kids since they're scattered up and down the East Coast and there's no wrapping or shipping (just a card!) involved. They're all a huge hit. Plus, it's a tax write-off since NWF is a non profit.

Posted by: WDC 21113 | December 7, 2007 10:41 AM | Report abuse

The most precious thing you can give a child is the gift of your time.

I know a lot of parents whose house has become overwhelmed with kids stuff. One of the biggest problems is that some people find it difficult to throw anything away that might still retain some value, no matter how little. Also, if you are like my wife, tossing out a gift that was given to our child by a grandparent or relative seems insulting to the relative that gave the gift. It's like saying to the relative, "What you gave my kid is now worthless and belongs in the garbage."

Funny thing here is that the child would just as well throw most of their toys out than clean them up. Try it sometime, tell your child what you don't clean up gets thrown away. Don't make it like a punishment, just a way of honestly getting rid of the stuff that isn't wanted.

For the last few years I've suggested things like tickets to concerts, shows, an evening out, lazer tag, or any activity with the kid for those who ask about gifts for my kids on those special days. Most kids won't remember their first ride-on toy, but the memmories of time spent with grandma and grandpa will last a lifetime.

Posted by: DandyLion | December 7, 2007 10:45 AM | Report abuse

I've already told everyone in both families that we are not buying much and that we don't want much in return. Shouldn't be a problem. Last year my parents didn't go nutso (for once), and my in-laws gave everyone a pillow. (Except their youngest child, who got a $1500 mixer board, but that's another story.) I really enjoy giving gifts, but you can only do so much.

FIL has requested a new laptop, which is way out of our budget. I think the problem with buying for long-established adults is that they can afford anything they want. If they don't already have it, they just don't want it. FIL is always noticeably disappointed with our gifts, so I am inclined to spend less on him rather than more.

Posted by: Karen | December 7, 2007 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Karen - totally agree with you about buying for long-established adults! That's another reason why I have issues with the gift-giving to the in-laws. FIL and MIL are quite well-off, with full military officer retirement and full retirement from when FIL was a veep at a large company. They take trips to Europe multiple times a year and MIL thinks nothing of dropping thousands in a shopping trip. I'd honestly rather spend the money on my assistant at work or the guys who park my car every day! :-P

Posted by: PLS | December 7, 2007 11:20 AM | Report abuse

Santa is giving my girls rollerblades this year and I'm giving them each a book and a toy. They'll get skating protective gear from my brother's family and Grandpa is paying for their school ski program and Cricket subsrciptions.
We used to get deluged from my now ex-husband's side but even they have taken to sending money, which the kids put in their bank accounts and spend on a few special items during the year. Works for me. I think I'm pretty lucky.
Oh and like DandyLion, I regularly threaten to throw out toys that are not picked up. Unfortunately I rarely get to make good on that threat so the toy shelves are still pretty well stuffed! Our biggest problem now is too many books.

Posted by: anne | December 7, 2007 11:27 AM | Report abuse

I could have written your post, but without the rancor to your husband's family. I've just decided that the traditions are different for each family, not that one is better than the other (even if you think they are, which you clearly do). It was hard a first, but now I just enjoy it, and let the kids enjoy it too. What you teach them is that everyone is generous in their own way.

Posted by: To PLS | December 7, 2007 11:38 AM | Report abuse

I second the "gift of time" idea, and not just for grandparents. For my sixth birthday, my uncle's girlfriend took me to a fashion show. As I think about it, it seems very out of character--she's not a "high-fashion" person at all, although she has her own distinctive style. They later got married, and she's now my aunt. Although we don't see each other all that often, I always feel a connection to her because of that long-ago birthday. I can't think of any item she might have given me that would have had the same effect.

Posted by: Kate | December 7, 2007 11:46 AM | Report abuse

I agree, there is a touch of rancor on my part. I do *definitely* control that in front of DH and DD, this is more of a chance to vent on my part. There are other issues there too which I'm not going to get into. :-)

Posted by: PLS | December 7, 2007 11:47 AM | Report abuse

My guys are pretty young (3 and 5). We give them maybe 3 gifts at Christmas plus a big gift from santa that they both can use (a jumperoo jumper thing this year). We have stockings which we stuff with bubble bath/oranges/little treats. We have a pretty small family, which helps limit the yearly influx.

I'd say the guys get maybe 8 gifts or so each, total. Geez, that sounds like a lot now that I type it. I do cull some toys and dole them out later in the season.

PLS: maybe you can suggest to the inlaws that they fund a 529 for the grandkids? That's what my parents do (plus a small tangible gift to kids) and it's an excellent way for them to be generous without clogging my house.

Posted by: Beta | December 7, 2007 11:49 AM | Report abuse

I agree on spending time with kids, and maybe picking out things to do that they are specifically interested in that their siblings or parents may not be (I'm an auntie).

Twenty years ago I took my nephew to a local dinner theatre production of The Mikado for his 10th birthday. I asked to be seated near the front so he could see everything (and we were). It soon became obvious that the performers were kind of bored with their show, and were looking for a way to liven it up. Somehow, they had heard about my nephew's birthday.

Much to our surprise and pleasure, they proceeded to incorporate him and his birthday into the entire show! They slipped in references to him by name, usually humorous, in multiple scenes.

Needless to say he paid attention and was delighted, and now at 30 still remembers it.

Posted by: CJB | December 7, 2007 12:09 PM | Report abuse

"The thing that bothered me about foamgnome's post yesterday was the comment that she feels it is rude to tell people not to bring a gift to her daughter's birthday party. It is an understandable sentiment."

Capitol hill mom: I didn't say it was rude to ask for no gifts. I said one of the parents who came to my daughter's party thought it was rude. So I have not requested no gifts since she told me she thought it was rude.

Posted by: foamgnome | December 7, 2007 12:27 PM | Report abuse

My mother and I both have a big problem when it comes to buying gifts for my step-daughter. We both pick up all kinds of small things, and my mom sometimes picks up all kinds of large things as well. We have a tiny apartment, and her bedroom can't really deal with all the stuff we find. Still, she has less toys than most children her age.

Theoretically, I believe that every holiday should just be about giving books, and MAYBE stuffed animals.

Posted by: Kat | December 7, 2007 12:30 PM | Report abuse

My parents have given DD for Chanukah, the last two years mother daughter tickets to the Kennedy Center. We are seeing a show on December 30th and probably another one (ticket sales start next week) on March

She loves eating lunch in the cafe and looking at airplanes. Because I get the tickets early we are row B in the family theatre.

Posted by: shdd | December 7, 2007 1:04 PM | Report abuse

National Wildlife Federation has neat magazines, too -- Baby Animals, Your Big Backyard, and Ranger Rick -- takes them from toddler to mid-elem. school. That's what I get for my friend's kids since they're scattered up and down the East Coast and there's no wrapping or shipping (just a card!) involved. They're all a huge hit. Plus, it's a tax write-off since NWF is a non profit.

Posted by: WDC 21113 | December 7, 2007 10:41 AM

WDC, You are confused about the tax benefits of writing off the cost of publications or other items purchased from a non-profit. In order for a taxpayer to claim a deduction, the donation must be a DONATION. If you get a tangible item in return, the value of that tangible item is not a donation. That's why when you donate $150 to public radio, and you get a coffee mug as a gift, the station will tell you that you may claim $143 as a charitable donation, but the remaining $7 is value you received in return. Or, in the alternative, if you order a magazine subscription from NattyGeo, the cost of that subscription is not a tax-deductible charitable donation.

Posted by: mn.188 | December 7, 2007 1:29 PM | Report abuse

YES!!! we are exchanging things for time

Posted by: educated mom | December 7, 2007 1:50 PM | Report abuse

foamgnome, you wrote "I can't find a polite way of asking for no gifts at a kid's party." There was no backstory about someone else telling you that she thought it was rude. In any case, you seem to agree with your friend-- there is no polite way of saying "no gifts". I'm not trying to stir up the pot as I agree with the sentiment (whether it is your friend or you going along with your friend) but I have to say that I have done it anyway and lots of other folks I know do it also.

I think this is relavant to the question "are we too materalistic?" because when we try not to be materalistic, we can come across as being rude. When choosing between those tough choices I personally have chosen the risk of seeming rude but I totally understand why you and others have chosen the alternate. PArenting is all about tough choices.

Posted by: capitol Hill mom | December 7, 2007 1:51 PM | Report abuse

I just suddenly remembered a Christmas where my two small boys, still being somewhat of a novelty, got tons of gifts from every side of the family. Each gift was so immediately interesting to play with that we had to break off at noon and didn't finish till the following evening...It was hilarious but not an experience to repeat.

Posted by: lurkette | December 7, 2007 2:32 PM | Report abuse

As a materialistic person, I have to say it's not all that bad-as long as it's balanced with values and perspective. As long ass you've got that long term savings thing, bills paid, health, and that you KNOW the holiday would be just like Whoville- as wonderful without anything. As long as there's no entitlement.

What else is money and all the time we work for? I'm a total spoiler. And actually I spend tons more on the adults during the holidays than the kids, because I know the kids are all gonna get tons of stuff from all the different families and friends, but the adults never splurge enough on themselves and always tone down in case the other person doesn't have much extra to give a "big gift" and won't feel bad.

It can be a thin line- when is giving just giving and when it is embarassing. But I compensate knowing they are halfway across the country now and I only see them once or twice a year anymore so I'll spoil them to embarassment if I want to.

Posted by: Liz D | December 7, 2007 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Liz D makes some good points. No one who knows me would ever call me materialistic but I love the opportunity to cut loose a bit at Christmas and try to pick out gifts for people I love -- my kids among them!

Posted by: anne.saunders | December 7, 2007 4:00 PM | Report abuse

When I was a kid I got basically all my toys at Christmas and a few at my birthday. Essentially I got almost no toys or games outside of Christmas. I got clothes year round and I was allowed to save up my allowance and buy books, but I got no other toys. This meant that I got, you know a dozen big gifts each year. I know I wasn't as spoiled as friends of mine who had more toys than they cared about. I worked very hard to never break toys or lose pieces. But the thing was that my parents had money and they didn't want to spend it on anything else but toys or college savings. My parents didn't believe in buying clothes or letting me buy records or tapes.

This year I am getting my kids at least a 6 big gifts each and the grandparents are going to do well too. When it comes to small gifts, I think there will be another 6-12 small gifts. For instance, I bought the kids each a stack of books. Well you know, there are 4 or 5 books there. My son has 2 board games and he and his friends just started learning how to play them, well how could I resist buying checkers, sorry, parcheesi and some of the classics? How can you not buy a kid a set of dominoes when he's learning numbers?

My thing always was that my parents refused to allow me to beg and plead for gifts and many times I was chastised and punished for begging for things. Asking for gifts specifically was definitely not allowed. However my mother would do things like ask what the hottest Atari cartridges were or ask me about what I liked to play at friends' houses, etc. I grew up with a healthy disgust of materialism while at the same time living at least a semi-privileged lifestyle if that makes any sense.

Because half of us here have enough money to buy our kids whatever they want, the issue becomes how can kids who have many options get really nice presents without also getting a bad attitude.

I talked to some of my son's friends' parents and I'm in trouble already- they are buying 4 or 5 gifts for their kids totaling $200-400. They weren't happy that I was buying so much but honestly, I don't want my son always relying on TV to be entertained like they do.

It's like my wife thinks I'm nuts for reading the kids two library books every night. I'm always getting 20 books out of the library. That's a lot of books but can you really spoil a kid with TOO MUCH reading? Or is that going to create a kid who wants to read more and more?

Posted by: DCer | December 7, 2007 4:51 PM | Report abuse

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