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Parenting in a Material World

How To Set Values On Spending

My son, Nicholas, is squatted at the base of the dining room table rifling through a toy catalog, when he suddenly slams his palms on a page.

"Lo-o-ok it de-ez dru-ums!" he screams. "Cin we get dem?"

"It is a nice drum set, honey, but," I stall, "it costs a hundred dollars."

"Oh!" he bawls into my collarbone. "It's too many monies!"

Too many monies. Did I really want Nicholas to think the only reason we wouldn't buy the drum set was the hefty price tag? I don't want him to think this is an issue of acquisition versus deprivation. What if we had the money to buy the drums and anything else his little heart happened to desire? Would we?

What About Imagination?

I guess the spending thing is only one part of my queasiness. I think what's really nagging me is that I'm not sure what buying more and more toys for a child does to his imagination. Would he still have the urge to invent a drum kit out of an ice bucket, a metal mixing bowl and an empty oatmeal carton? A metal spatula and a turkey baster as drumsticks?

If I regularly replace his inspiration with merchandise, something tells me he might become disconnected from his own ideas. And what then? Wouldn't a person then gradually yearn for things to fill the void? How would he see himself in the world from his vantage point of easy acquisition?

I once read that a fulfilled need is a building block of self-esteem. But a fulfilled want? I don't know. Is there any way to cut envy, boredom and indifference off at the pass? How early can a person begin to feel the first pangs of general dissatisfaction, an inner restlessness that there is never enough? I realize now that just because a child really, really, really wants a new toy doesn't necessarily mean he or she really, really, really needs it.

We talk a blue streak to your kids about the price of things, about what's expensive and what's on sale. They know the value of many things. But do they know our values? How early can a person begin to have a set of values and live by them?

Material Rewards?

Parents are often warned about spoiling babies with too much love and attention, cautioned against picking them up when they cry to provide comfort. People try to convince us that we ought to place limits on babies to prevent spoiling later on, but by the time "later on" is here, we may be planting the seed of a confusing value system, rewarding "good" behavior with goods – material incentives to be kind, cooperative, honest, trustworthy. As parents, do we want our children to grow up and believe the world is their oyster – or that they can buy that oyster, compete for it, maybe even take it from someone else who has earned it?

There are lessons in the catalog caper.

My son wants to have more in part because there's more to have. At 3 1/2, he is old enough to plead for a Ride-on Excavator, to offer his toys for donation in exchange for it. He's too young to realize that he will play with it for four days, then use it as a climbing apparatus until it breaks. Too young to know that by the age of 20, the average child will have received $33,000 in toys and allowance.

Obviously, we will always buy things for our children. But how does our gift giving affect our children's behavior?

Nicholas' buddy, Billy, has an endless supply of toys. Under his bed, unopened boxes of brand-new train sets, games and books lie in the dark among the dust balls. Yet, at 4, he has already lost interest in what he owns. His focus is on the next toy. So he has no qualms about letting his pal Nicholas borrow whatever he wants. Not because Billy's feeling particularly generous, but because he is sharing by apathy. On the other hand, I've noticed that Nicholas seems less inclined to share his trucks for fear that someone "might break something."

What are a parent's motivations? Do we buy to placate? To win affection? To console or reward? To apologize? To buy obedience, compliance, cooperation? To compete or keep up with other parents? To prove our love? Our worth? To relieve a child's boredom – or our own? To fulfill our own unresolved needs? Or maybe to compensate for our lack of time and attention?

Granted, there are those times when you just want to make your kid happy. But sometimes, there's the price of a gift and then there's the cost of buying it.

Nicholas may want the drums, the digger, the didgeridoo. But he's still young enough to dream, to feel the thrill of his own imagination.

How does a parent preserve that reward? How do I let the baby drive and say no to the remote-controlled, jumbo log loader with side stabilizers?

Over the next couple of months, Nicholas continues to find rhythms in unlikely places. Brushing his teeth. Car horns. Popcorn popping in the microwave. There is no mention of a drum set or a catalog. I wonder if he has realized something about the value of his own inspiration.

At this point in his life, I can tell him that horsie-on-a-stick has to stay at the toy store with his family, and he puts the plush animal back with no contest. But what about next year? Once he is out there on the playground, at play dates, parties and school, the stakes will surely go up, and show-and-tell will be about much more than cicada shells in a glass jar.

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