Material Girl

It’s the time of year that parents like me dread: making the annual holiday shopping list.

As I sit down to figure it all out, I keep asking myself the usual questions: What does my son need? What is the best use of our money? What will he love the most? I don’t want Wolfy to become a spoiled child and I don’t want to waste our money on toys and silly things that he won’t care about in a few short months.

When it comes to toys, I vacillate between feeling overwhelmed by the amount of his stuff that fills our house and feeling like compared to other kids, he barely gets anything. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Yes, Wolfy has a ton of toys, but it also seems like most of his toddler and preschool-aged friends somehow still have much more.

How do I raise a child that feels like he has the things he wants but also realizes that he can’t have everything? And ultimately, how do I get him to appreciate that it’s really for the best to not always get everything that you want?

I’m thankful that at three years old, my son hasn’t started asking for much and certainly hasn’t started asking for brand name toys just because they are the coolest new thing that everyone else has.

When I was about Wolfy’s age, my mother didn’t want me to have Barbies. She believed that Barbies were inherently sexist and the image they promoted of womanhood wasn’t one my mother wanted to perpetuate. I asked for a Barbie all the time. I begged. I threw tantrums. But my mother stood strong, refusing to cave. Finally my mother left town for a family emergency and I was left in the care of my father.

I was only three or four years old but I remember being in a department store and begging my dad for a Barbie- and magically he gave in!!

For the next ten years Barbies were some of my favorite toys. I remember playing with my Barbies long after it was appropriate and even making them into punks and hippies when I was a pre-teen (another excuse to keep playing with them). I’ll never know if they damaged my perception of myself but I do know that I loved them. Now as a mother myself, I feel bad for my own mother whose desire for a Barbie-free home was usurped so swiftly. But do I feel resentful of her for not wanting to give me a toy that she didn’t agree with? No. In fact, I admire her willpower. Now that I’m an adult and a mother myself, what I appreciate most is her reaction to my having a toy she detested and that I loved. I’m so glad that when she got home and saw a blonde-haired Barbie clutched in my hand, she didn’t try to take it away from me. She saw how much this new toy meant to me and she tried, on some level, to accept it.

A conversation with my sister is what got me thinking about all of this. Though she doesn’t yet have a child of her own, she believes some toys are just terrible. In her words certain toys are capable of teaching materialism and elitism. In her generation, she says it was the Cabbage Patch Doll collection. But now the toy my sister despises is American Girl dolls. She swore to me that she would never buy a child of hers one of those ridiculously expensive toys. I think it’s easier for her to take a moral high ground on the issue, considering that she doesn’t have to actually say no on a daily basis. It’s easier to stand on the outside and say exactly what you would do than to be living with a tiny, powerful little human whose desire for a toy is just as strong as your aversion to it.

This is why I argued with my sister that I would definitely buy my daughter one of those an American Girl doll.

Working in elementary schools, I have witnessed how little girls attach to them. Rather than seeing these students become materialistic monsters, I actually see them incredibly happy and thankful for these particular toys. It’s true that my cheap nature would prevent me from buying my daughter all the ridiculous accessories. But one doll and then an accessory here and there couldn’t hurt, could it? I seriously doubt that giving in even just a little bit would really cause my little girl to become a spoiled, materialistic monster shouting “Gimmee! Gimmee! Gimmee!” while pouring over the American Girl doll website.

Toys are powerful.

They send strong messages to children, but I also believe that many of these messages are inherent in our culture and unavoidable anyway. And I think the best defense against these destructive messages is the environment we create in our families. Our children are products of the values that we pass down daily through our actions and words. Did Barbie change my perception of myself? I don’t believe it did. Is Barbie a toy I would feel good about giving my own daughter? No. But then there is this gray area. The gray area for me is when a child really, really, really wants a toy and maybe it’s possible to give in just a little bit. Maybe it’s not so bad to let them fit in with their friends once in a while. Maybe the joy of an American Girl doll outweighs the lesson of not getting one. My sister and I have different limits and different gray areas but then again, she was born first and my mother never gave in to the Barbie for her.

As I make my holiday shopping list this year, I am so thankful that I don’t have to solve this dilemma. I know that someday Wolfy is going to ask me for a video game and I’m going to have to say, “Absolutely not.” And when I do have to stand strong, I’m going to call on my mother and sister for back up.

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