Christmas Gifts

December 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

We blame pester power and advertising for the vast sums that we spend on our children, but have parents caused the growth of kids’ consumer culture

For the newsreader Joanna Gosling, it was the electronic hamster debacle that finally clinched it. Having failed to bag that year’s must-have Christmas toy for her daughters before it sold out, in desperation she paid almost twice the going rate on eBay for her set of ZhuZhu pets — only to watch them quickly gather dust.

“I spent about £70 on this rubbish that got played with once and was never seen again,” she says, confessing how that was a turning point. These days her philosophy with her three daughters, aged from 9 to 3, is definitely less is more.

No wonder, then, that Gosling’s book Simply Wonderwoman seems to be catching the zeitgeist. Its homespun ideas for making dolls’ houses out of old wine crates and filling home-made advent calendars with handwritten poems instead of sweets fit the make-do-and-mend spirit of the times — as does its warning that too often “we spend money on children to assuage the guilt we feel about not always spending enough time”. The pursuit of a simpler, pared-back approach to the festivities suddenly feels right.

At the school gates, the talk is all of toning things down this Christmas: everyone is briskly flogging off past years’ unwanted loot and swearing not to overdo it again. A recent report from the retail analyst Verdict predicted that while families will spend more than last Christmas, that’s only because inflation has pushed up prices — we’ll actually buy fewer things, cutting back on “big ticket” items.

It’s partly the economic gloom that now makes an overstuffed stocking feel tacky, of course. For families facing a bleak new year, necessity dictates a thin Christmas. But the financially challenged aren’t alone in suddenly questioning the wisdom of spending £149.99 on a Disney fairytale castle for someone who will probably be face down on the carpet wailing, overwhelmed by princess-lust and sugar, before it’s even unwrapped.

Justine Roberts, the co-founder of Mumsnet and a mother of four, was so struck by a recent post on the site from a user called ShowOfHands that she made her own children read it. The author had written that while money was too tight for big presents, she and her partner instead made a point of celebrating all the little things with their four-year-old daughter: baking the Christmas cake, picking holly, making paper snowflakes. “I understand why you want to buy lots of gifts: I have the urge, too,” she added. “But you do that and Christmas contracts down to one thing, to the story of Father Christmas and being given things. And it creates this surge of excitement and almost disappointment when it’s over.” Rather a slow burn, she added, than one frenzied day and a sickening comedown.

Roberts admits that it made her question why her own Christmas felt so different, dominated by “feeling ground down by all the buying I have to do”. She thinks that many parents are rediscovering an old-fashioned sense of restraint. “I think it’s to do with the idea that consumption has got us into this mess, which leaves a looming cloud on the horizon, and in which many people are losing their jobs. It’s as if there is something inherently wrong with consumption now.”

Tellingly, Mumsnet users responded angrily to this year’s Christmas advertisement from Littlewoods, featuring children singing the praises of “my lovely mother” for buying everyone such expensive presents. It wasn’t only the pushing of interest-free credit that they found offensive, but the inference that money can buy love. And that taps into a much deeper groundswell of unease.

It first emerged after this summer’s riots, when the sight of teenage mobs looting trainers prompted serious questions about the effects of an aggressive consumer culture on young people. Was there really such a huge difference between middle-class teenagers petulantly demanding plasma TVs for their birthdays and poorer ones simply helping themselves?

Such fears were underlined a few weeks later by a Unicef report arguing that British children were worse off than their Spanish and Swedish counterparts because their parents were “struggling to give them the quality time they want” and offering consumer goods instead. Though built on detailed observation of only 24 families and interviews with 250 children, its findings clearly resonated. By September a leaked memo revealed that Downing Street was considering its recommendation of a ban on advertising to children.

What we are seeing is an association between rampant consumerism — toxic enough, in these banker-bashing days — and feeling like a “bad” parent. The difference between this and any other tough year seems to be a preoccupation not only with doing Christmas for less, by scouting around for bargains, but actively persuading children to want less in the first place.

Last December my then three-year-old son flatly refused to write a letter to Father Christmas: the very idea seemed to puzzle him, since he had only the vaguest idea of what he wanted. This year, however, all that stands between him and a lengthy list is probably his inability to spell most of it. Where does it come from, this sudden rush of material desire?

Starting school plays a part. He now covets his classmates’ Ben 10 lunchboxes instead of the unbranded one I bought, while Show and Tell is a catwalk of Buzz Lightyears and superhero accessories (despite his teacher’s efforts to encourage wholesome objects found on nature walks). But the most obvious trigger is that we recently caved in to cable TV, after years of rationing him to ad-free CBeebies. He watches the commercial breaks intently, wanting almost everything for the few seconds it’s on screen, reciting the slogans. I like to think that he isn’t spoilt, since he hears “no” more often than “yes” from us. But one look at the overflowing toybox suggests that he certainly has much more than I did as a child, much of it the play equivalent of junk food: desperately craved, soon forgotten. It’s these shallow-rooted crazes that bother me most.

It’s tempting to think that the answer is to stop swamping children with siren calls that they can’t yet resist, by slapping a pre-watershed ban on TV advertising of toys. The charity Family and Parenting Institute has long supported such a clampdown and its chief executive, Katherine Rake, says that she doesn’t rule out a bold move by Downing Street, despite stiff opposition from broadcasters who rely on advertising to fund children’s programming. “It depends on how willing they are to pick a fight,” she says. “From a family’s point of view, now is absolutely the time, because the last thing they want is more pressure. There are an increasing amount of rows in families about unaffordable things. It’s about sending a strong signal that our children consume too much, too young.”

However, she concedes that for parents of older children, the challenge is not TV but marketing clips sent to mobile phones. Similarly, Reg Bailey, who led the Government’s recent review on the commercialisation of childhood, has said that parents worry more about online advertising than TV, because they understand it less. In Sweden, where TV adverts for under-12s were banned in 1991, there is some evidence that companies have simply learnt to reach children by other means.

The emphasis so far in Britain has been on promoting media literacy in schools, teaching children to recognise the hidden agendas in advertising and thus to be less easily seduced. It’s no panacea, since even cynical adults can’t always resist a hard sell, but it is at least an attempt to get inside children’s heads before the retailers do. The only problem is that, if the Unicef findings are right, children aren’t necessarily the problem. Children did hanker after fashionable brands in all three countries studied by the report, but most agreed that it wasn’t good to get everything you wanted and were scornful of those they considered spoilt. What marked out British families wasn’t the children but the number of parents reportedly feeling “compelled to purchase, often against their better judgement” and struggling to set boundaries. Is it really about what children want, or what we want to give them?

Rake is wary of blaming working parents overcompensating for their absence, pointing out that statistics show that mothers and fathers in Britain spend more time engaging with their children now than in the 1970s. However, she concedes that guilt, misplaced or not, is an issue: “Is there a temptation as a parent to compensate for your guilt about what you are doing by buying your children material goods you can’t really afford? Of course, there’s a massive temptation.”

For poorer families, there’s also often a desire to use Christmas to make it up to children after a bleak year. And the high-tech educational toys on this year’s bestseller list bring a new kind of guilt: will your five-year-old grow up to fail his or her GCSEs because you balked at £79.99 for a LeapPad, the children’s version of an electronic tablet? (Tip: if you’re worried, buy books instead).

But by not making clear to children that they can’t have everything they want, parents are ducking out of a necessary life lesson. Parenting coach Sue Atkins says that children swamped with presents often attribute less value to each gift, so don’t feel happier overall — and they aren’t being prepared for the inevitable disappointments of adult life. “Parents mustn’t feel guilty that they can’t afford some of these things,” she says. “Perhaps you just get one decent thing, or lots of little things, and that way children learn about the values that you want to pass on — that sometimes the value of a gift is in the thought behind it.” She suggests that parents gain confidence in saying “no” by doing so throughout the year over small things, such as not buying sweets on every supermarket trip but making them an occasional treat.

And spending a little less can still mean giving more. Joanna Gosling says that one of her most successful presents was a sewing machine for her eldest daughter: “It’s like giving your time to your child, because she just loves spending time with me making things. It’s a continuously giving present.”

Buying less, and wrapping it in a silent promise to play more, may mean fewer instantly gratifying shrieks on Christmas morning: but time together is ultimately what memories are made of. And at least they shouldn’t be broken by Boxing Day.

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