Updated on 11.10.07

Toy Catalogs and Children: Are They a Good Match?

Trent Hamm

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.

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  1. Trent,
    You’re not a fan of toys being suggested to your children??

    Have you seen television shows lately, particularly those directed at children? Half of the show is product placement and promotion. Children are having products suggested to them by TV shows and commercials whether they like it or not. Television is probably more effective in doing this than any paper catalog could ever be.

  2. FIRE Finance says:

    We agree with Raymond. Paper catalogs stand no where in comparison to tv shows, ad jingles and movies (including animations) which keep kids hooked to them with super glue. They even learn the catch phrases, ad lines and voice their needs in those terms.
    In certain ways we are responsible for this trend. In this rat race, we do not spend much time with our kids and are glad if we find them in front of the tv. That keeps them off our back for a while. But eventually the tv habit comes back with material vengeance when the kids absorb the consumerism concepts like a sponge and spit it out at us.
    It is one of the reasons we have kept the tv out of our house, its one of the greatest nuisances of this age!

  3. Toy catalogs and children are a terrible match! I remember being a kid and marking off everything in the toy catalog that I wanted. So a couple of weeks ago when my son saw the Toys R Us catalog from the Sunday paper, I didn’t think twice when he started looking over it.

    Big mistake. Since then, he’s been whining 24/7 about everything he wants. The catalog mysteriously disappeared today when I cleaned the house. :)

    I like the list idea. Time for me to get out a piece of paper…

  4. !wanda says:

    Trent’s family hardly watches TV, so a paper catalog would be a significant source of ads for his children.
    The catalog idea sounds like a terrible tradition to me. It’s appalling to see little children being so greedy.

  5. Carol says:

    I loved looking through the huge section of toys in the Sears catalog when I was little. The pages became worn and torn and almost everything was circled by myself or my brothers. Come Christmas we would get maybe a bike or a wagon or clothes my mom had made. They could have afforded the fancy toys but didn’t like a lot of plastic junk around. But it didn’t matter to me, the fun was imagining the possibilities. Now I’m pretty much of a minimalist. In spite of unlimited hours of TV as a kid and the Sears catalog I have never really liked accumulating things. So I don’t think it matters one way or the other. I’ve known people who grew up with no TV and then when they got one as an adult they couldn’t stop watching. I know people who had little as kids and couldn’t stop accumulating possessions when they grew up.

    I like the list idea but I don’t think the catalog is inherently bad. Your kids are going to learn much more from watching you. Are you always looking toward the next electronic gadget or accessory to buy or are you content with what you have?

  6. Mella says:

    Ah, the Wishbook. My younger sister would flip through the toy section (which was, what, 400 pages?) and circle, if not literally everything, then easily 75% of it.

    But…I’m pretty sure most of that was just response to immediate suggestion, and the “out of sight, out of mind” phenomenon kicked in pretty quickly.

  7. SJ says:

    We were given catalogs as kids to “circle” our favorites – it was never a guarantee of things we would get but a way for us to tell our parents what we wanted – however there was always a STRICT no whining policy – anything we whined about we were guaranteed to never ever get (this extended to everyday life too – you might ask for ice cream, or a book, or whatever, nicely and once, and maybe my mom would get it, but if you whined, forget about it). That was pretty effective.

  8. debtheaven says:

    My oldest child is 21 and if my four kids ever saw a toy catalogue, it wasn’t in my house. Those catalogues would get put into the recycling bin immediately, they never even made it into the house.

    We told our kids to “write to Santa”. They always had requests for gifts, some feasible, some not so feasible. They were never short of ideas, but at least the Santa letter required some thought and discussion on their parts, as well as even dubious writing skills, and for the younger kids, help from older siblings. I still have those lists, lol.

    IMO catalogues are way too overwhelming, they contain much too much carp, you might as well take your kid into Toys R Us and hand them over your credit card! There’s no discrimination involved.

  9. debtheaven says:

    This is not totally related but there are two other things we did / do for Christmas that we like. We are both Hanukah and Christmas. Rather than give too many presents, for Hanukah we’d buy tickets to a show and go together. Then one child went to school really far and it got too hard to do that, so we started giving each child a small charitable gift instead (like sponsoring their favorite animal at a zoo). Now that they’re all “local” again, I hope to do both.

  10. KoryO says:

    My little guy is still too young (14 months) for this, thank heaven. But I heard of one thing that might work regarding Christmas toys.

    Ask the anklebiter what he or she wants around Halloween. Have them write it down, or if they can’t do that, write it down for them. Put the list aside. Wait a few weeks, like around Thanksgiving. Ask them again what they want. Whatever matches on the lists is probably a good bet. Everything else may just be something that they saw on TV or was just a passing fancy that they aren’t so excited about.

    I’ll try it in a year or two and get back to you on it. Until then, we’re just wrapping up some empty boxes and letting him do his worst. ;) (He’ll get a toy, so please no “That’s mean!” replies, ok? He just loves ripping paper right now.)

  11. Mrs L says:

    My parents used to take us to Toys R US sometime in November… this was a HUGE deal for us, as the nearest store was in another city, and there was a lot of anticipation built up. Just seeing everything on the shelves was so magical, and my parents watched us to see what caught our eyes and what we most played with. We knew that they weren’t going to purchase anything for us during this trip–the trip itself was the treat.

  12. Brett says:

    I would like to take a contrary view here. You can’t hide materialism from your children forever. You can hide the toy catalogs and limit the amount of television they watch, but as they get older, they will become exposed eventually. My eldest has just started school and is mixing more with other children. He sees the toys they have.

    I would argue it is better the teach your child, from a young age, to cope with the urge to acquire material possessions – it exists within all of us. Help them to learn by asking them to limit the size of their list and explain why. Get them thinking about these issues – and they will deal with them that much better when you are no longer able to shelter them from rampant materialism.

  13. natural says:

    The entire holiday is based on untruths and is very commercial. My daughter gets toys from Jan – Dec with no catalog. I guess if you do acknowledge the holiday is nice to know what they want, you could do it that way. I teach my kid the truth.

  14. Marcy says:

    Christams itself encourages consumerism. It’s pathetic. The advertising, music, programs, especially the decorations, so-called sales, and such start earlier and earlier each year. Case in point, we are already having a christmas discussion. Not too long ago, all the BS related Christmas stuff didn’t start until after thanksgiving. Corporate greed changed all that. It’s trickled down to our children, who go nuts over all this junk, things they don’t really want, things they will probably never use. There’s nothing wrong with getting into the holiday spirit, it’s how people go about it that spoils it and turns it into an oportunity to spend like crazy and teach our kids how to be greedy hyperconsumers.

  15. Steven says:

    My older sister and her family (husband, two kids) would buy the kids small toys/candy for the stockings, then make gifts for each other. Over the last years there have been pinyatas, geographic shapes cut with paper, a wall hanging of Godseyes. From the parents there have been home-made stilts, a wooden puppet theater with curtain, etcetera.

    If we have kids we’d like to do something similar but with some store-bought gifts, too (I remember the fun of a little excess, after all). Catalogs we never saw as kids but we were inundated by T.V., that’s for sure.

    All that said, materialism at Christmas isn’t a problem if the rest of the year you don’t raise materialistic kids.

  16. Rachel says:

    I have to wonder if as children get older exposing them to the catalogs might actually have some benefit, as in they can learn to limit their materialism. So often parents bar their children from things like cartoons, candy, video games, etc. By not being able to develop the capacity to deal with the onslaught of catalogs or candy or whatever else has been withheld, children could have a hard time dealing with the gimmes.

  17. Fuji says:

    My children never really had much say in what they received for holidays until they were teens. I shopped thrift stores year round and if I saw something I thought they would like I would stash it away until the right occassion. Then agan, we don’t watch television. You are quite right Rachel, at some point we all need to develop discriminating behavior when it comes to acquisition. As teens it is impossible, and far from beneficial, to try to keep the materialistic world at bay. Better to develop a healthy sense of discriminating taste.

  18. vh says:

    KoryO’s two-list idea is a good one. It’s a way to identify what the kid really wants (if “really wants” is a significant factor). I agree that kids — like all the rest of us — are inundated with advertising messages coming from all directions. (well…just lookit this Web page: YOU, TOO, can learn all about car-buying, for a small fee, from CONSUMER REPORTS.ORG, after you’ve responded to the URGENT NEWS to buy Mr. Hsu’s investment advice! HURRY!).

    If you can find the time to do it, browsing a catalog with your kids may represent as much a Teaching Moment as watching the idiot box with them. Sit down with them over a catalog and make some fun of the hype, point out the misleading messages, remind the older ones of the toys covered with poison (!) our Chinese trading partners have so kindly sent us, show them how to find product reviews on the Web, and guide them toward making intelligent buying decisions about all the bait being thrown their way.

    The Sears catalog doesn’t seem to fall into the same category as a toy catalog, which marshalls every sophisticated psychological and marketing trick known to personkind in a deliberate campaign to target children. When I was a kid, we got the Sears catalog because we lived overseas in a remote area where no normal U.S.-style shopping was available. I loved looking at it, and learned a lot about tools, clothing, and gadgets I’d never seen. But then, that catalog was not aimed and kids…even the toy ads addressed parents, not children.

    Too bad advertisers aren’t required to do the same these days. When hucksterism goes out of control, it calls for regulation.

  19. Marsha says:

    Wow, I’ve never heard of the practice of having children circle “I want” items in catalogs! I did sit for hours with the Sears catalog when I was a child, but we didn’t circle items in it in our family. I never expected I’d get more than 1 or 2 things from the catalog – and the fun was in imagining the toys or other items.

    For older children (and adults!) magazines are just as bad. Any more, magazines are just catalogs with a couple of short articles tossed in (except for a few like Times or Newsweek).

  20. rebecca says:

    One thing we have done in the past was have an envelope and the child cut put pictures or a list(usually pictures cut out from the catalogs ds was pretty young when we did this) of 5 things they wanted. If he found something new he wanted he had to take something else out of the envelope.

    We had the envelope around all year — and used it for birthday and just because gifts too. But it kept the list down to the things that were the most important to the child at the time.

    Now my boys both have amazon wish lists, that they update regularly throughout the year — some times they save up money to these things themselves, sometimes they delete old things they don’t want any more, and occasionally someone buys them something off the list.

  21. Hannah says:

    The Sears catalog was a tradition for us and kept each of us busy for at least 1/2 an hour, circling everything we wanted. We circled everything. We weren’t stupid enough to think we’d get everything, but we would’ve been happy with any of it. It was all fantasy play, like pretending to have magic powers, or that we were royalty. We never, ever got a single thing from that catalog, and every year we knew that, even as we furiously circled. Our parents got us very beautiful, thoughtful gifts that we loved and played with for years. I thinks it’s not that practical to let young children choose their presents anyway. 1. It takes away the joy of real surprise. 2. Kids have bad judgment and usually pick crap. 3. It gives them a sense of entitlement.

  22. Grace says:

    Like Marsha, sitting with my sister and the Sears Christmas catalog is one of my fondest childhood memories. We always started with very long lists of what we wanted “if we could get everything we wanted.” As Christmas neared, we got much more realistic–we knew our parents didn’t have much money. But I think it was a good financial experience–to dream big but to also come down to what we “really, really” wanted.

  23. Jillian says:

    When did meaningful-gifts-chosen-with-care-and-given-from-the-heart turn into choose-for-yourself-whatever-you-want-and-I’ll-get-it-for-you? I hate what Christmas has become.

  24. Kate says:

    Aaahhh, the Sears catalog. Like many others here, I have fond memories of that time of year when it arrived. I don’t remember if my siblings and I circled anything in hopes of getting some things for gifts, but we did look at every single page of it. I think that I learned how to really use an index because of it. My sister and I used to cut out elaborate housefuls of families from it. Did I ever get anything from it? I don’t even remember! It was just fun looking at all of the stuff!

  25. buffalo says:

    We’ve never kept the advertising in any form from our kids. And yes, when they are 3 or 4 they might want everything and ask for everything. That’s the way my current 3 y.o. is that way. My 6 y.o. is a little more selective about what she asks Santa to bring. The 8 y.o. has become every selective and has a list that’s only 4 or 5 times long. He’s come to realize that you can’t have everything so you need to be picky. He also realizes that the sky is not the limit. He’d love a Wii but he knows its not likely to happen.

  26. Ryan says:

    Catalogs are a terrible idea. Kids are supposed to make a list off the top of their heads, and that’s the way it is. With a catalog, it’s more like “Here is a list of the possible items you may receive for Christmas.” Kid marks his initials down, thinks such and such is a good idea for 5 minutes, and dislikes it later. It’s like that rule about considering any purchase of $20 for a week to be sure it’s a good purchase. The catalog is impulse gifting. Come up with stuff on your own, kids.

    And since when did Sears become the new Santa Claus?

  27. I think if you are teaching children your values (and showing them your values) year-round, they’ll use the catalog more discriminately. I agree that my daughter as a 3-year-old wanted everything (although she never remembered or expected everything on Christmas, but was pleased with what she got). Now at 6, she chooses things we know she really would enjoy, like a pottery wheel or play horse tack — and she is much more discriminating in catalogs and in stores. She likes to look, but she’ll say things like, “That robot dog is fun, but we don’t need it, because we have a real dog.” Consistency matters more than whether they look at a catalog.

  28. Dan says:

    Lighten up…

    I had a LOT of fun going through those as a kid. I’d spend hours “researching” what I wanted for Christmas – documenting it, comparing similar items, adding things up, etc.

    I had relatively little hope of getting more then 1 or 2 things but it was still fun.

    What we are doing is collecting them all until we get some snow or at least cold weather – then we’ll give them to the kids.

    They will be good reading projects for the older ones and I suspect the younger one will see again that books can be fun.

    After they have gone through them 200 times they will cut them up – each selecting a page full of things they really want which we will carefully fold up, slip in an envelope and then I “take” them to the mail box to send to Santa.

    Then we buy them what we were planning to all along. We are the parents after all.

  29. Ruth says:

    We had wish lists when we were kids, and any time we were in a store or looking through a catalog, and we wanted something, my mom would say, “We’ll put it on your wish list.” It was a good way to keep us from demanding it now. She also used to use the catch phrase, “You can want anything you want,” meaning, of course, that wanting it doesn’t mean you’ll get it.

  30. Bonnie says:

    This is an old thread but wanted to comment. My 3 children are pouring over the toy catalogues now. I think it is great. They have circled tons and are squealing with delight at all the cool toys.

    If you limit your children, as someone said they will eventually get older and out from under your control and do their own thing. If you want them to make good choices, they need to be able to make those choices just like adults do every day. There are real life limitations such as budget and if you get children involved in that as they can handle it, you might be surprised at how much they will understand. Unfortunately, parents place all these limits on their children and then send them out in the world and they can’t cope. Do you think all the credit card debt and bankruptcies are by people who were allowed to just consume as children? Hardly.

    I also agree with the poster about those of you who limit the tv or worse don’t allow it. My experience is that those children will become sneaky or actually “binge” on it when they become adults.

    Partner with your children so that they will be able to make choices based on available information. You can’t do this when all you try and do is control everything they do. Hide toy magazines? You are actually encouraging consumerism by doing that. Consumerism is not a terrible thing btw. Yes, kids get bombarded but if you partner with your children to wade through all of the advetisements, then they can make choices and yes some of them will not be so great ones but that is how most adults learned too. Can’t learn if you aren’t allow to even make a choice. My children have purchased plastic stuff that fell apart and that is how they learn that some things that look great on tv or in catalogues aren’t necessarily all that wonderful. They can’t learn this if I am controlling their choices. When they are very young, I take them to the dollar store and they are quite happy selecting toys and being satisfied this way.

    I love the toys as much as they do and we are a cash only family. No debt at all.

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