Toy Catalogs and Children: Are They a Good Match?

This weekend, I’m visiting my parents, and I’ve seen a small army of nieces and nephews and cousins floating through the house. One of the most popular items sitting around is a toy catalog, where my parents have encouraged the various young folks to put their initials very clearly next to items they want. The children have been poring over this catalog with intense care, putting their initials all over the place, and talking excitedly about all of the items that they want for Christmas.

In fact, just earlier today, my nephew went through the catalog with me, showing me items that he wanted on practically every other page. An XBox 360Guitar Hero III… a gumball machine… a Bears jersey… and those are just the few that I can recall off the top of my head. There were many more items he showed me while leafing through the catalog.

Most people think of this as a rite of Christmas, and I do, too. I used to do the same exact thing, reading through a catalog and marking a wide variety of stuff that I’d like to receive for Christmas. I’d usually expect to receive at least a few of the items I’d marked, and my parents usually would buy me a few of them and leave them wrapped and under the tree.

However, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the entire thing. It’s pretty clear, from watching my nephew, that the catalog does a very effective job at suggesting gifts to him. He’ll pore over individual pages, look at the images of toys that look like lots of fun to play, uses his imagination a bit, and then jumps on board. The pages are essentially an advertisement, trying to make the toys look as intriguing as possible.

In other words, on some level, Christmas catalogs encourage materialism in young children. It creates a desire within them for objects, particularly ones that they did not even conceive of wanting before the Christmas catalog came along. In fact, ideas from catalogs can often overshadow other ideas – nowhere in a catalog, for example, can one find books or highly open-ended creative toys.

I have no problem with my children wanting toys for Christmas. Toys are a wonderful thing and create countless opportunities for a child to have fun and play creatively. On the other hand, I’m not such a big fan of toys being essentially suggested to my children, either.

So what’s a healthy solution for children? I think the best idea I’ve ever heard came from an old college friend of mine. She said that one day in late October each year, her parents would get out a blank piece of paper and have them start a list of the toys and other items that they wanted for Christmas. As ideas came to them, they’d add them to the list, and then the lists would go away in early December. At no point during the Christmas season did they have a catalog to look at – the toys they listed were either from their own imagination or from other sources.

That sounds like a pretty good plan to me.