By Dr. Ray Guarendi

Dear Dr. Ray,

I’m getting more and more uncomfortable with the amount of toys, gifts and general “stuff” that my children receive.  Well-meaning relatives and my husband and I have overdone it.  The kids have gotten less appreciative and more bored.
Too Well Off

You are asking two questions. One, how can you and your husband cut back on your excess? And two, what can you do to cut down on the supply and resupply from loving relatives? Let’s focus on you first. Then we’ll talk about your relatives behind their back.

The first law of child rearing economics is this:  Don’t give materially all you are able to. The second law is like unto it:  Don’t give materially all a child wants you to. Many rationales push parents into breaking these laws. Here are common ones:

1.    I want to give my children what I didn’t have.
2.    I like to see them happy and excited.
3.    So many other families’ kids have it.
4.    We can afford it.

Let’s consider these individually.

1.  I want to give my children what I didn’t have.  If this means love, attention, time, affection, praise, then by all means flood them with it. It’s hard to give too much of these good things. They are gifts that can’t be broken, hoarded, or fought over – well, most of the time. (Sometimes the worst brawl can erupt over who gets to sit on Dad’s lap first.)

If your childhood was materially poor, certainly you want to give your kids a higher standard of living, but going too far may lower their level of living. Materialism can be a forerunner to self-centeredness, endless demands, ingratitude, boredom. I have seen few children lacking for character because they lacked for material perks. I have seen quite a few who lacked for it because they were indulged.

2.  I like to see them happy and excited. In the short term, lots of gifts excite kids. But humans are creatures of habituation. We grow accustomed to things, and what was once exhilarating loses luster.

Consider your son’s glee upon opening his first gift on Christmas morning. He wants to linger and play. But there is a whole stack yet to consume. By gift number seven, he’s in full ripping frenzy, stopping only long enough to reach for the next surprise. Another human trait:  The more we get, especially if its free, the less we appreciate it. And we often come to expect it.

3.  So many other families’ kids have it. The pressure from this perception is most acute concerning the latest games, gimmicks, clothes, and ninety-dollar athletic shoes. Whether or not 000 homes of 1,000 sport the latest designer lunch-box is completely irrelevant to whether your home should have it. Good parenting is not majority parenting. You can be different. Maybe your parenting is better than most.

Will your youngster feel cheated or apart from the crowd? Possibly in this small matter. But whatever tiny, temporary identity issue this might cause will be more than offset by the lesson he’s learning about life, himself, and moderation.

4. We can afford it. I won’t dally on this one but will instead refer you back to the first law of childrearing economics. The fact that buying for your children puts little strain on your wallet bears no relationship whatsoever to what’s good for your child. Certainly you can also afford many harmful things, but you would never consider getting them. In themselves, toys and goodies aren’t trouble, but in excess quantity they can breed qualities that are.

Good parenting evolves. It’s a long process of scrutinizing, rethinking, and changing – if need be – ideas that aren’t working out well. All parents follow some notions that eventually show themselves to be faulty. Materialism is a common one. You’re a wise parent. You’ve realized that even the best of intentions can teach unintentional lessons.

Nest we need to recognize the corollary to the two laws of child rearing economics we have noted: Where your child is concerned, others need to follow your laws. So, how do you cap a bottomless well of material – from within your home and without? Here are three suggestions:

1.  Gently seek your relatives’ cooperation with your revamped mindset. “We’re going to cut way down on the things we buy the kids. We want to teach them more about appreciation. Can you help us? We know how much you enjoy getting them things, but we want them to love you for you and not what you can buy.” Stress how much more their presence means than their presents.

2.  If goodies continue to flow into your house at an unacceptable rate, you might begin an all-out campaign to reduce inventory. Together, you and the kids decide what to share with other children who have much less. Arrange for their personal delivery – to a hospital, shelter, group home, school, or church.

To avoid future accumulation, how about this rule:  For every goodie that comes in, one goes out. The kids can choose. If they’re reluctant to part with anything, you can choose. … Your children’s character is far too important for compromise on contributions you don’t agree with, no matter how well-intentioned the contributor.

3.  Christmas has become as season of material excess, for children and adults. To regain some control of the spigot, prior to the holidays, you and the kids can sift through existing toys, deciding which will be given to other, more needy children. Make sure a few good items are shared, and not just the five-year-old, outgrown, untouched clutter.

Space out Christmas gift opening, so Noel can savor the gift and appreciate the giver. If too much flows in, hold over some for opening after Christmas.

You can make an even stronger statement about sharing by having the kids choose one or two unopened gifts to be given to a less-fortunate child. Because the package contents are unknown, a child will truly be sharing and not just discarding the least favorite gift.

… Isn’t all this just “forcing” kids to share or to be less materialistic? Sure it is. Much of character is instilled initially by making kids do or not do things against their wishes.

At first most kids do resist giving up what is “theirs” or are upset about not getting more. As they mature, however, they begin to grasp the deeper reason behind the action. They feel better about giving than getting, and learn to be content and grateful for what they have rather than upset over what they don’t have.

If kids naturally refused excess, you wouldn’t have asked the question you did.

Dr. Ray Guarendi is a clinical psychologist and father of ten children. He is the author of several books and is a host on the Doctor is In.  The above Q & A was originally published in Dr. Ray’s book, “Discipline that Lasts a Lifetime” and is reprinted here with his permission.