Whenever my parents would ask my daughter, Rosie, what she wanted for Christmas, she'd say "nothing," and I gave myself an internal pat on the back for her lack of typical childhood gimmes. That changed this year, however, when Rosie turned 5 and started obsessing about all the stuff her friends had that she didn't. As her holiday list grew -- a DS, an American Girl doll, even a new house -- so did my paranoia. Was my daughter turning into a spoiled brat?
Experts say it's normal for children her age to start coveting stuff, especially during the product-driven hoopla of the holiday season. "When 5- and 6-year-olds start kindergarten, they're typically spending more time with their friends, so they become increasingly exposed to all of the merchandise out there," says Tim Kasser, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois, and author of The High Price of Materialism. "They also have a new social awareness that causes them to frequently compare themselves with others." At the same time, Dr. Kasser says, our culture bombards kids with the message that consumer goods are the path to happiness. Given all that, it's actually not surprising that your child is asking for a bunch of loot. What you don't want, though, is for him to no longer appreciate what he has or to be devastated when he doesn't receive everything on his list.
That's why you should take steps to downplay the materialism. We've got tips on how to tackle bad influences.
Greed Generator: Friends
Like my daughter, many kids start asking for the same things their friends have. Their reasoning: "All the other kids have one, why can't I?" The next time your child says this about something you're not planning to buy, don't condemn her for the re-quest, says Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D., author of Spoiling Childhood: How Well-Meaning Parents Are Giving Children Too Much -- But Not What They Need. Affirm her desire, and then explain your honest reason for objecting. Using the phrase "in our family" will emphasize the idea that different families have different values, and that you're not necessarily judging her friends. If it's pink designer boots that she wants, for example, you might say, "Yes, those are really fun boots. In our family, we don't spend that kind of money on shoes, especially since you would outgrow them so quickly. But if you want, we can go to the store and look for a less expensive pair just like those."
Greed Generator: Television
Ever wonder how your child knew to put the latest action figure or other shiny must-have on his list for Santa? More than likely, he saw it on a commercial. Advertising has a powerful effect on children, experts say, and a wide range of studies show that the more TV kids watch, the more likely they are to be materialistic. "Television exposure can create a huge case of the 'I Wants' in kids this age," says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids. "All of us are incredibly influenced by advertising, but kids are especially vulnerable because they often don't understand the difference between shows and commercials." That's where you come in. Choose DVDs and commercial-free programming when possible, but also teach your child that advertisements are made to make you want to buy a product. "Tell your kid, 'That's an actress being paid to smile and act like the doll is the best thing ever,' Dr. Kasser suggests. 'She's trying to convince you to buy that so the company can make money.'"
Greed Generator: Grandparents
Maybe they give her boatloads of presents every holiday, or maybe they simply bring a gift every time they visit. They do it out of love, of course, but if the first thing out of your child's mouth when Grandma walks in the door is, "Where's my present?" it's time to rein in their generosity. Robin Goodman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City, suggests having a conversation with Granny and Grandpa when the kids are out of earshot: "Tell them you appreciate their generosity, but you're worried that your child is focusing on their gifts rather than their relationship. Then problem-solve with them. You might suggest a specific item they can buy or discuss limiting the amount of gifts or number of occasions." Another great idea: For the next holiday, ask them to give your child a coupon for an outing, maybe to a museum, a hockey game, or a movie. "Going out for a special day can be a big deal to her, and a lot more memorable than getting a pile of new toys," says Dr. Goodman.
Greed Generator: Mom & Dad (That's You!)
The best thing you can do to teach your child the importance of nonmaterial values is to practice them yourself. In other words, buy less stuff -- and make sure he doesn't hear you whining about how you wish you could afford that expensive handbag you saw on your latest trip to the mall. "If you're building your Christmas around shopping for gifts, that's what your child will think the holiday is about," says Dr. Kasser. Instead, emphasize holiday traditions that don't cost any money, like cookie baking, singing carols, and creating homemade gifts.
Originally published in the December 2011 issue of Parents magazine.