Ten-year-old Sara keeps her holiday wish list in a notebook, adding new items as she watches Saturday morning cartoons. The list is six pages long by October, including several items costing $100 or more.
Devon, who just turned 5, scans the Sunday paper, boldly marking the ads for toys he’s expecting from Santa and leaving them where they are sure to get noticed by family members. His mom and dad brace themselves for a month or more of tearful pleading and high-volume demands.
“I want it!” “Everyone else has one!” “Buy it for me.” “Why can’t I have it?” No wonder parents of children like Sara and Devon dread the holidays — not to mention birthdays and other special occasions that provoke similar outbursts.
Gimme, Gimme, Gimme!
Every child making a holiday list doesn’t have deep-seated psychological problems. But many parents and child development professionals are concerned that even very young children are adversely influenced by a steady diet of commercials and buying appeals that can raise their holiday expectations to an unhealthy level.
“We live in a culture that encourages children to get all they can,” said Lynne Namka, Ed.D., a psychologist in private practice in Tucson, Ariz. “It happens year-round, but is especially noticeable during the holidays. Children are constantly bombarded with the message that they can have everything they want.”
Some children are encouraged to demand gifts their families can’t afford, while others want items of which their parents do not approve, Namka says.
“In many cases, children’s expectations are so extensive or so unrealistic their parents can’t avoid disappointing them, no matter how much they spend or how many toys they buy,” she added.
The Santa Problem
Shirley Ogletree, Ph.D., professor of developmental psychology at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos concurs, pointing out that some holiday traditions may even make the situation worse.
“In homes where Santa Claus is the focus, it can be hard for parents to explain why the children can’t have everything they want,” Ogletree said. “The magic and mystery of the season becomes associated with receiving toys and gifts, and detached from giving to and sharing with others.”
When children begin to ask practical questions about Santa — such as how he can fit through a chimney or how his reindeer can fly — they are mentally mature enough to start developing more realistic holiday expectations, Ogletree says.
“And it’s also a good time to increase the emphasis on giving, sharing and personal relationships as the most enjoyable aspects of the season,” she added.
Parents need to discuss holiday expectations with their children well in advance, Namka says.
“As soon as the seasonal hype starts, talk to them about what they can expect to receive,” Namka said. “Be specific about what gifts you feel are appropriate for them and approximately how much you can afford to spend. And above all, remind them that it’s fine to ask for what you want, but that no one gets everything they ask for.”