Holiday Buying: More Pressure Today Than 40 Years Ago?

7 years ago

Beth Christmas 1971Once upon a time there was a little girl whose only wish was for a Barbie Country Camper. This was 1971. For simplicity's sake, let's call the little girl Beth. Beth had seen the Barbie Country Camper in Saturday morning TV commercials, and she wanted her Barbies to have the fold-out picnic table, pop-out tent, sleeping bags, and camper kitchen. The Barbie Country Camper was the first and most important item in her long list of wants that she secretly wrote and mailed to Santa Claus. And for two weeks before Christmas, she dreamed about the Barbie Country Camper when she went to bed at night.

Christmas Eve, she didn't even go to sleep at all. Butterflies danced in her stomach and Country Camper thoughts raced through her head. When Christmas morning finally arrived, she raced downstairs to find under the tree the Barbie Country Camper she'd been waiting for! She raced over to the Barbie Country Camper, grabbed it to her chest, and hugged it. And then she looked at the gift tag.

"To Fran, Love Santa"

WTF? Okay, she didn't say WTF because there weren't text messages in 1971, and she wouldn't have known what F stood for anyway.  But still, WTF?

Turns out her sister Fran was the smart one. While Beth had secretly written her letter to Santa and had faith that the old guy wouldn't let her down, Fran had told Mom and Dad directly what she wanted. Man, talk about your lesson in handling disappointment. I mean, check it out. I watch this commercial now, and I STILL want that plastic Barbie Country Camper with its toxic vinyl pull-out tent!

So obviously there were toy commercials back in the 70's targeted at children and pressures on parents to provide their kids with what they saw on TV. What I'm wondering is whether that pressure is even greater today than it was back then. I don't have children myself, but I've noticed among some of my child-rearing friends that while they try to live as simply and "greenly" as possible during the rest of the year, holiday time can turn into "The Story of Stuff." One of my relatives (who shall remain nameless) routinely puts himself into debt every year at Christmas and spends the rest of the year trying to pay it off.

In his article "Everything You Know About Going Green Is Wrong", Dan Shapley reviews two articles whose main contention is that

the stuff we buy and the packaging that comes with the stuff we buy represent our biggest contribution to global warming – far more so than the amount of electricity our stuff uses, or the amount of fuel our stuff burns on the highway.

So if that's the case, do our holiday purchases cancel out the green measures we take during the rest of the year? And how can parents resist the onslaught of advertising that they and their children are subjected to every day? According to the Media Awareness Network,

Industry spending on advertising to children has exploded in the past decade, increasing from a mere $100 million in 1990 to more than $2 billion in 2000.

Parents today are willing to buy more for their kids because trends such as smaller family size, dual incomes and postponing children until later in life mean that families have more disposable income. As well, guilt can play a role in spending decisions as time-stressed parents substitute material goods for time spent with their kids.

That was 10 years ago. Child-targeted advertising can only have gotten stronger since then. Not only are kids exposed to advertising on television, but advertisers reach them via the Internet as well as through access to advertising in schools in exchange for program funding, technology donations, and sponsorship of educational materials.

So I put the question to a range of other bloggers -- those with kids as well as those without; those who write about green issues and those who focus on other topics. The question generated a flurry of conversations on various list servs. I wish I could post everything! But since that would take many pages, I'll just highlight here a few of the responses I received.

Liz Gumbinner, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of the consumer blog Cool Mom Picks wrote me:

At least with our readers, we've seen a strong move to more responsible consumerism - not buying cheaper items per se, but buying those that you can really feel good about. People would rather get one heirloom quality handmade doll for $90 than a whole bunch of plastic crap from Toys R Us.

I'm also seeing a bit of a guilt factor at play - even those who can still afford to buy a lot of items are cutting back because it just feels inappropriate and at odds with the current zeitgeist. They're also introducing more charitable giving into their gifts, whether they're buying fair trade or making donations to match the cost of what they've spent on toys.

In keeping with Liz's assertion, Deb from Deb on the Rocks admits that in the past she was a big spender at Christmas time, while living very simply year-round. But she says that last year they cut back and this year...

we, kids included, feel drawn to cutting back this year more so because so many are suffering than for environmental reasons, but I will admit that since our bar was high, cutting back still means lots of gifts. We know we are forgoing a big trip this year already. We make some charitable gift giving decisions together each year at Thanksgiving time, and we'll talk about upping the ratio or giving to those in need and giving each other less.

MC Milker from the Not Quite Crunchy Parent spends very little on Christmas and deals with advertising by restricting her child's access to it.

...we don't have TV - so he's not exposed to commercials except when he sees them ( rarely) at other people's houses- that helps! (In case you're wondering, son does spend time glued to the screen- just videos instead of commercial TV - Hubs and I watch Youtube and HULU)

And in her post "Best Toys For The Holidays - Blocks and Building Toys," MC recommends wooden blocks as a perfect gift for children:

Blocks are one toy recommended by most child development experts. They are open ended. They promote creative play. They aid in developing mathematical skill, spatial relations and physics. They demonstrate the effects of gravity; promote social interaction and improve hand-eye coordination. What more could you want in a toy?

But Lisa from Condo Blues feels that not all wooden toys are a great idea. In her hilarious post "10 Green Gifts That Suck" (which I just read and is causing my kitties to worry about me as I gasp for breath at my desk) Lisa rags on a particular wooden toy:

3. Some wooden toys. I get that last year’s plastic toy recalls freaked out a lot of parents (me too.) However, I think that some wooden toys can be just as dangerous – look at this handmade wooden baby rattle. Imagine the concussion baby could give you when they throw this warhammer at your head when they play endless rounds baby’s favorite high chair game of I Throw the Toy and Make Mommy Pick It Up.

Lisa's other nine green gifts that suck, including sock monkeys (one of which I actually received from a relative when I was TEN and then secretly cried into the box from disappointment) and CFL lightbulbs, are just as funny and absolutely true.

Still, whether gifts are green or not, Karen from Best of Mother Earth bemoans families in which the kids tear open their gifts in ten minutes flat and then complain about what they didn't get. To her, the holidays are about love, "each gift opening was savored. One gift and one sentiment at a time." And about technology gifts, she writes:

I have sometimes been the recipient of electronic gifts for the holiday. I parallel that to getting a new vacuum for one's wedding anniversary. I'd personally prefer 1000 kisses than a gift of electronics!!

Karen's post is full of simple and creative ideas for giving her kids gifts they will treasure for a lifetime rather than a few minutes. She has never succumbed to the advertising messages pushing her to buy, buy, buy.

And Erin from The Green Phone Booth writes that what kids really want doesn't come from a store. In her post "What A Kid Wants," she writes:

Who needs toys when there's the great outdoors?

Who needs toys when there are playgrounds?

Who needs toys when there are museums?

Who needs toys when there are festivals?

Who needs toys when there are boxes?

Who needs toys when Mom needs help?

[...] Going to museums, playgrounds, and festivals require your time. But in six years of being a parent, I've learned that your time is what a kid wants the most.

Similarly, Diane from Big Green Purse recommends experiences over things. In an email, she told me that she will give

tickets to the theater, concert and sporting events, lecture series, etc.; a day at the local rock climbing place or at the auto show - activities they love and would find hard to organize themselves. We all like to give "gifts" - just not a lot of stuff.

But not all "green parents" have such an easy time resisting the bombardment of advertising. Amber from writes in "Battling the Toy Catalogues,"

My 4-year-old, Hannah, loves the toy catalogues. Sometimes I try to recycle them before she can see them, but she has this sixth sense that foils my efforts every time. If a major toy company or toy store has distributed promotional materials to our area, she can sniff them out. And as soon as she does, the asking starts. “Mama! Mama! Mama! I want this one, and this one! And, of course, this one! Mama! Did you hear me? I have to tell you something! I want this one!”

Amber then goes on to list the reasons she dislikes the catalogs and what she does to try to foil their efforts to convince her to buy "just one doll."

Because one doll might not be all that bad, but millions of dolls purchased by millions of people because ‘just one can’t hurt’ add up really fast.

And apparently, buying "green toys" gets harder as children get older. In her post "Christmas Confessions", Micaela from Mindful Momma says that last year she ended up at Toys R Us and Target despite her best intentions because she simply ran out of time to find greener age-appropriate toys.

I've got two boys and they are growing up fast. They want electric cars and video gear, not cute homemade stuffed animals or FSC-certified wooden trucks. They used to like that stuff but they're moving on.

And Deanna from Crunchy Chicken has given up green gifts altogether during the holidays. In her post "Skipping Green Gifts for the Kids", she explains:

Even when the kids were very young, they always preferred the bright shiny plastic toys over the carefully selected, non-toxic toys made of natural materials that I bought for them. I sure liked them, but since I was the only one playing with them, it didn't make a whole lot of sense to continue buying them.

[...] [As kids] get older and exposed to other kids, media and advertising, they start exerting their own preferences and it can become a huge battle. One that I'm not willing to take on.

Instead of looking for eco-friendly gifts, Deanna limits the number of gifts they get in the first place.

Linda from Citizen Green also believes in limiting the number of gifts and is not so forgiving of parents who buy their children boat loads of stuff. In an email, she wrote me:

Beth, I raised 3 kids and played Santa for years. I don't think it is today's kids as much as it is today's parents. The parents set the rules for gift getting. If parents are concerned about keeping up with the Joneses then the kids will be expecting lots and lots of presents. In my opinion, parents can tell kids what is out of bounds money-wise and quantity-wise.

If that's true that the fault lies with the parents, why is it true? Is it because advertising is so much more intense these days? Is it because parents are working longer hours and want to make up for time they can't spend with their kids?

Or is it because of the simple delight parents experience watching the excitement of their kids? I know that was the reason our living room was always loaded with presents when we were little. That, and the fact that we had two sets of grandparents who doted on us, as my parents were both only children and my siblings and I were the only set of grandchildren. Still, no Country Camper.

Some parents have no problem limiting the gifts they themselves buy because their children have other relatives and friends who will fill in. A few of these filler-inners who don't have children themselves weighed in on the discussion as well, sharing how their own families celebrated the holidays and what they now give to the children of friends and relatives.

Karen Walrond from Chookooloonks said that since her kids get a lot of presents from relatives, she sticks to the guideline, "something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read."

That said, I sort of love the idea of making one of those gifts eco-friendly or good for the environment -- maybe something she can plant and make grow, or something like that? She's very into saving the environment right now, and I think that's an outlook that needs to be encouraged. So perhaps one of those 3 or 4 gifts will be green-related, now that I think of it ...

And BlogHer's Karen Ballum told us about the original way her mother made Christmas special.

When I was growing up we got one "biggish" gift each. Usually. Sometimes it was a few smaller items. And then we got smaller more "useful" items. Often things we needed. My mother tended to save the excess for Christmas dinner. Everyone had their "own" dessert. I have six siblings. That's a lot of desserts.

But what about the guilt some parents feel for setting limits on the amount of gifts they give? Devra's post on the Parentopia blog, "Guilt: What's a holiday without this special gift?" helps alleviate some of that. She asserts that

Any gift is a good gift. Remember the old adage "You'll get nothing and like it?" Well, if someone is getting a gift from you, then you've already gone above and beyond according to that adage.

Still, for those who really want to make the holidays special, either by finding ways to give without buying a lot of new stuff or by buying the greenest gifts possible, there are a couple of Guides that can help.

Jennae from Green Your Decor has created a beautiful Green Gift Guide for everyone on your list, including separate guides for children and teens, with nary a sock monkey to be found.

And to help parents cope with holiday commercialism, Alline from Eco Village Musings highly recommends the free 2009 Simplify the Holidays Guide from New American Dream for finding ways to create a memorable holiday season with less stuff.

So, let's continue the conversation. How do you celebrate the holidays? And do you feel more pressure to buy a lot of stuff than you did in the past? Or is the economy helping you to resist the insistence of marketing messages? 


Beth Terry writes about finding creative ways to reduce her plastic consumption and plastic waste at Fake Plastic Fish and encourages others to join the fun. We only have one planet. Let's enjoy it instead of polluting it with plastic!

This is an article written by a member of the SheKnows Community. The SheKnows editorial team has not edited, vetted or endorsed the content of this post. Want to join our amazing community and share your own story? Sign up here.

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