When I was eight years old, the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle was the hot Christmas toy for boys. The pleasure I felt unwrapping the gift from my parents was matched only by the excitement I felt when I discovered my parents had also given me the Evel Knievel Scramble Van.
But the pleasure and excitement didn’t last.
We replaced novelty with items that would have lasting value, or help teach useful skills.
Christmas shopping for kids creates a dilemma for many parents. In spite of a desire to do better, we succumb to the pressure to spend money we don’t have to buy things our kids don’t need. The hope is that our kids will have smiles on Christmas morning. My parents fell into that trap. I’ve done it with my own kids.
Relentless marketing and talk among peers triggers desires for things kids didn’t know they wanted. Over time, those wants transform into needs. When kids sense those needs are at risk of not being met, they resort to persuasive means that rival those of high-performing sales representatives.
I used those persuasive techniques on my parents. My kids have used them on me. But this year — I’m trying something different.
Once, when I was a young boy, I was at Grandma’s house feeling bored. Grandma brought out a coffee tin full of wooden spools. The spools once held thread Grandma used for sewing. She told me how she used to play with spools, just like these, when she was a child. Her toys were made from odds and ends that could be found around the house. Her family couldn’t afford “fancy” toys, as she called them. Grandma was giving me perspective that kids don’t get from marketers and their peers.
This week, I sat down with my 13-year-old son to review his Christmas wish list. His selections surprised me. I was just as surprised by what he chose as I was by the high cost. My wife and I have purchased what my grandma would have called “fancy” toys for my son over the years. But we’ve leaned more toward being frugal, buying toys that would have lasting usefulness. I detest buying toys that get used for a few weeks — then end up in the back of the closet or in a pile in the garage when the novelty is gone.
My son’s list was full of novelty toys influenced by “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” I doubted a Kylo Ren Voice Changer Helmet would get more than a few days’ worth of use. I did give him credit for not choosing the video games popular among other boys his age. We went through his list together, and I asked him his reason for each selection. I resisted his persuasive appeals and explained why I didn’t approve of his choices. He protested and got tears in his eyes, but we made it through.
Instead of sending him back to the drawing board on his own, I picked up my laptop and we sat next to each other on the couch. Together we browsed listings from different online stores and started a selection of practical items for his list that we could both agree on. We replaced novelty with items that would have lasting value, or help teach useful skills — items like a resetting target for his pellet gun to help him develop patience and hand-eye coordination, and an entry-level metal detector to help him discover the value in finding items lost by others.
That Christmas morning when Evel Knievel stunt toys showed up under my Christmas tree ended in tears. My dad had tossed the toys’ decals in our burning fireplace with the discarded packaging and wrapping paper. He didn’t realize I hadn’t removed the decals from the packaging. My tears turned into sobs. It wasn’t a major loss, but I lacked perspective — the kind of perspective I’m wanting to develop in my son. Here’s my strategy:
1.) Help Him Count His Blessings
I’m encouraging my son to tell me about the things he enjoys, and to savor them. A good time to do this is during our family gatherings in the evenings when we read something inspirational, share events from our day, and pray together. It’s a good activity for each family member to participate in — talking about something that happened in their day that they took pleasure in, and having other family members ask questions about it.
This is more about getting close to my son throughout the year.
2.) Facilitate Connection
With all the advancements in technology, there’s still an opportunity for someone to invent a gadget that makes it easier for parents to transfer knowledge to their children. Technology might be making it more difficult to accomplish this task, because it’s harder to get a child’s attention when their focus is on the latest social media post or text from their “network.”
While we’ve given our son access to computers, my wife and I have resisted connecting our son to video games and social media. Yes, video games can teach some useful skills, and are safer than other activities boys can get into. Sure, social media makes it easy to connect with friends and peers, perhaps even to develop friendships. But, we want our son’s easiest connection to be to us.
Kids who lose connections with their parents before they’re ready fall under the influence of people who aren’t looking out for their best interests. As busy as we get with work and our other responsibilities, we prioritize making a face-to-face, verbal, and physical connection to our son each day. We tell him that we love him, give him hugs, and ask him about his hurts and disappointments, hopes and dreams.
3.) Help Him Make Good Decisions
When there’s a positive connection between a parent and child, there’s greater opportunity to influence their decision-making. I wouldn’t have been able to sit down with my son and line-item veto his Christmas wish list if he didn’t trust me. I might have succeeded in trashing his list — but he wouldn’t have been willing to sit down with me and build a better list.
Part of helping my son make good decisions goes beyond helping him develop his annual Christmas wish list. It’s more about getting close to him throughout the year. We work together on projects around the house, fix broken toys, and do fun stuff. By spending time together, I’m able to be there when he makes mistakes to help him learn from consequences and how to make a better decision the next time. He’s also there when I make mistakes, and glad to point them out, as we learn together how to correct my errors.
Jon Beaty, life coach and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”