To Buy or Not to Buy? Either Way, Your Child Can Handle It, Expert Advises

December 10, 2009

December 10, 2009 — As the holidays approach, children are tirelessly reminding their parents of the latest and greatest toys that they want to find under the Christmas tree. Denying such requests can be tough, especially when a child pleads that something is crucial to "be like all my friends" – which is code for comfortably fitting in among peers, University of Virginia sociology professor Allison Pugh said.

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But children are quite resourceful, creative and resilient in "managing difference" when they don't have direct experience of the hot movie, toy or video game that their friends are all talking about, Pugh said. In fact, learning how to do so is a normal and healthy skill to have, so parents should be less worried about not giving that "must-have" gift.

In three years of research for her book, "Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children and Consumer Culture," published in March, Pugh observed how parents go to great lengths to provide gifts equated with "social currency" among their children's peers. Low-income parents made layaway payments for months in advance, went into debt or even skimped on food or rent to buy a toy they felt was an important signifier of a "middle class" childhood.

But all children – even one who had his own private airplane – face times when they don't have direct experience with the latest movie, video game or other hot topic of conversation, said Pugh, who strove to be "a fly on the wall" during her observations of children, ages 5 to 9, across the race and class spectrum in schools and after-school programs in Oakland, Calif.

Those moments of deprivation are uncomfortable for children, Pugh noted, but at all ages, across class and race and types of schooling, they are highly resourceful and creative in finding ways to "fake it" and be part of the conversation anyway.

For example, they will study up on something they don't have, reading video gaming magazines or talking with other friends who have seen a certain movie in order to be knowledgeable enough to discuss something they haven't actually experienced. (Pugh's own daughter came home one day with a perfect drawing of a Pokemon character, even though the family has no TV.) Studying or absorbing knowledge from friends is one of the most common tactics that children employ.

Less often, a child may contest the supposed importance of a "must-have" item, but that's an uphill battle among their peers and usually doesn't work, Pugh noted – though parents often wish their children would question the importance of artifacts of popular culture.

Learning to cope with those moments of deprivation and social discomfort is an important social skill for children to develop, she said.

"I came away from my years of observing children in school convinced that children manage those socially challenging moments so well, that parents do not necessarily have to be as afraid of them as they seem to be," she said.

Pugh's holiday shopping advice: Pick only one or two gifts that may provide social currency at school, and look for those that provide "the best bang for the buck." Use any leftover funds to make memories with your children, to do outings or activities together.

Children might not be enthused at the prospect of a weekend trip with Mom and Dad, Pugh said, but lots of psychological research finds that shared family memories ultimately lead to more good feelings and happiness than material goods provide.

That's easier said than done, Pugh acknowledged. Parents are buffeted by a whirlwind of pressures pushing them to buy – and not to buy – certain gifts during the holiday season. On the 'don't buy' side are budget constraints or a desire to signal some protest of rampant materialism in our society. But the array of pressures to buy include the desire to make a child happy, and to express love through a gift, especially during the holiday season of giving.

Parents may also feel conflicted about specific gifts. Children always want more access to popular culture, and things that signify being slightly older and/or signify gender, Pugh said. Parents often have concerns that an item is age-inappropriate, too violent, or overly racy or sexualized.

Parents may prefer a gift that emphasizes quality or learning, or that isn't heavily advertised – presents that don't offer children much "social currency."

Opting for less popular gifts can be part of a larger celebration difference, Pugh suggested. "If parents take steps to celebrate difference – in themselves, in the family, among friends, in schools – children may see that they can belong in their social world even if they are different. Then they might not fall victim to what I came to see as the tyranny of sameness, stemming from their longing to belong."

Pressures to buy are particularly acute in the holiday season, but in our consumer culture, with children viewing an average of 40,000 television commercials a year, they never relent for long, Pugh said. By Jan. 10, there will be a new "must have" Wii game or "must-see" movie. If you say no, Pugh advised, your child may whine and nag, and they may feel some fleeting discomfort when the topic comes up among friends. But remember – they can handle it.

— By Brevy Cannon