Children, Christmas, and the Materialism Battle

Seth Godin pointed me towards this video of children opening Nintendo Wiis on Christmas morning (it’s well worth watching at least the first minute or so of the video):

While I was watching it, I was caught up with two strongly conflicting feelings.

At first, I felt happy for the children. Overjoyed children, on some level, always make me feel happy. I’m reminded of the unabashed joy of some of my own childhood moments, plus I can’t help but consider the happiness of my own children, too.

Yet, as I kept watching, the video began to unnerve me. These children were expressing an enormous amount of joy due to receiving an expensive consumer electronics item. I couldn’t help but think of Christmas 1987, where I reacted in a very similar way to receiving a Nintendo Entertainment System. It is still the single strongest memory I have of a childhood Christmas – and I remember the near ecstasy I had when my parents brought that item out of the bedroom.

What brought on such huge anticipation and excitement in a consumer product? For me, there were a lot of factors – friends at school were a big part of it, as were television commercials and, to a degree, my parents played along as well. They would encourage me to mark things that I wanted out of toy catalogues, for example, and I can remember drawing many, many circles around the Nintendo that year.

The end result? I spent more than a month in a fever pitch of anticipation about Christmas, hoping I would receive a particular item, and I was in an intensely excited frenzy when Christmas morning finally arrived. It was an emotional crescendo – and, frankly, it was the exact way that Nintendo’s marketing department hoped it would end, with a huge rush of happiness associated with that consumer product. Is it really a coincidence that our home currently has several Nintendo products in it? Likely not.

When I see those children in fits of ecstasy, I see children beginning to assign happiness to consumer goods – and that worries me. For most of my early adulthood, I did that very same thing – I convinced myself that my happiness was directly connected to what material items I had. I’d buy things and barely use them because of the rush of owning that product, and I’d quickly buy into marketing plans of all kinds. In some ways, I still do.

So this leaves the question: how can I tie together these scenes of Christmas delight with my own conflicting desires as a parent? Obviously, I want to create happy childhood memories for my kids and I also want them to actually have at least some of the things that they desire, but I also don’t want to create the type of emotional association with things that these kids are developing – and that I once developed.

My Children and Christmas

I won’t encourage my children to ask for anything for gifts.

This discourages obsessing over Christmas lists and the like. Instead, I’ll just focus on paying attention to them – what are their interests? What are they passionate about? This requires more footwork, but it also stymies a focus on consumerism.

I’ll work diligently to create positive memories with my child that aren’t associated with consumer products.

Instead of leaving my children to their own ends – or spending time with them focused on consumerism – I’ll try hard to create happy memories that don’t revolve around things. I’m already actively doing this with my children – in just the last few days with my son, for example, he’s helped me make supper, we’ve played catch, we’ve wrestled in the living room until he’s laughing his head off, and we’ve also read a pile of library books together.

I want to reinforce in my children the power of giving over receiving.

My childhood was often centered around the stuff I could get – there was very little focus on giving to others. We did not write thank you notes for gifts, nor was I ever really encouraged to think about giving to others, either in terms of charities or to loved ones for gift-giving occasions. I feel that this attitude contributed greatly to my financial problems in early adulthood, and I fully intend to work to implant different values in my own children.

I want my children to have a thoroughly happy and fulfilling childhood, but every time I watch that video, I feel that long term happiness is somehow being traded for the short term. That’s not a trade I want to make with my own children – there is a different way, and I intend to find it.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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