Sharon Alderton, 34, avoids her kids’ playroom. That’s because it’s already packed with toys for her two young boys — many that they don’t play with much — and with the holidays and one son’s Christmas Eve birthday quickly approaching, the Prosper mom knows the stuff is just going to multiply. “It’s too much of a good thing,” she confesses. Alderton is grateful for the generosity of others but wishes they wouldn’t give so much. “I don’t want my boys to be ungrateful, take it all for granted or think that getting toys is what matters most in life.”
Like many parents, Alderton struggles to find balance between wanting her children to have what friends have and keeping them from becoming materialistic.
Gifts Gone Wrong
Alderton isn’t alone. Associate Professor Sheri Kunovich is the head of the sociology department at Southern Methodist University. In her class Wealth and Consumption, she compares global patterns of consumerism and says the United States is unique in our spending habits.
In 2013, the United States had a total annual average expenditure of $371 per child on toys, the second highest amount per child after the United Kingdom, Kunovich explains.
She is quick to acknowledge that the problem may not be materialism but our consumer buying patterns that muddy the waters between what’s enough and what’s too much. She argues that the availability of toys is a good thing, but parents should be choosy about the type of toys they allow. “Parents believe that toys serve different functions, like some are for building social connections, others are educational tools and others are just for play,” Kunovich explains, “so they buy toys for each function, instead of letting a single toy or just a few toys satisfy multiple functions.”
Even still, she admits that it takes effort to keep the emphasis off material goods when it comes to her own kids, ages 8 and 10. “Of course they want things and when you add the gifts from grandparents and other family members, receiving can become overwhelming,” she laments.
Shifting Priorities From Stuff To Service
Andrea Verdone, 38, feels that the best way to combat materialism is to create a culture of giving in her home. Raised by parents who understood the value of kindness, Verdone felt like she had a good handle on keeping what her girls, Hannah, 8, and Natalie, 6, had in check: her philosophy being, “If we keep something, something else must go.” But when her daughter, Natalie, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia in 2012, her family’s focus on service went into overdrive. Verdone became heavily involved in pediatric cancer charities, and consequently, the way they receive and redistribute gifts changed. “Now there is a whole process to how we handle gifts,” she explains. If her girls are super excited about something they open, it goes in one pile; everything else goes in another pile that Verdone stores in bags. “Those toys stay in the bags for about a month in a corner in our house, so there’s plenty of time to get them out but you know, 100% of the time, they are never touched,” she says.
Once she establishes that the toys would better serve someone else, they go into the “fundraiser closet,” where she pulls from when she needs auction items. What she can’t use goes either to a women and children’s shelter or to the child life specialist at the children’s hospital where Natalie has her check ups.
Verdone doesn’t hide this re-gifting-for-the-greater-good process from her girls but rather involves them in it. “Sometimes one of them may say, ‘Oh, I remember when I got that,’ and then we talk about how much other kids may use and appreciate it.” She says that she ultimately leaves the decision to donate the toys completely up to her daughters, and they always err on the side of charity. “I think it’s important to make them a part of it,” she says, “because the girls feel so good when they hand these things over and see the gratitude from the woman running the shelter.”
Mansfield mom Michelle Hadash, 34, puts an emphasis on fewer gifts and more acts of service to keep priorities in check and clutter at bay during the holidays. She and her husband Victor make giving back the focus of the holidays through volunteerism, and her daughters, Sarah, 7, and Eva, 5, have grown up thinking of the holiday season as a time for giving, not a time for getting.
In addition to adopting from the Angel Trees at school and church, the Hadash family participates in Operation Christmas Child through the Samaritan’s Purse relief organization. The concept is simple: Fill a shoebox with toys and toiletry items for a child in need in another part of the world. But Hadash says the impact it has on her girls is profound. “When our girls first saw it, they couldn’t believe that everything the child got for Christmas could fit in a shoebox,” she says. From that point, they’ve always wanted to give more.
The Hadash family is also heavily involved with Santa Cops through the Arlington Police Association. Santa Cops provides families in Arlington ISD with gifts and household items at a party thrown annually a few weeks before Christmas. The Hadashes spend a day volunteering at parties for these families, distributing toys and goods, serving them and then cleaning and resetting the room for the next group of families. “My husband and I have been doing Santa Cops for a long time — from sorting the donated toys and helping at the parties to getting donations — it’s a big part of our Christmas,” Hadesh points out.
And because Hadash has made serving such an integral part of her family’s holiday culture and traditions, the giving at home naturally gets simplified. “The girls each get one gift from Santa and three from us — most of which they are ready to donate after a few months to a child in need,” she says.
Taking the First Steps
Debbie Green, 34, of Plano knew she wanted to be intentional about emphasizing volunteerism from the beginning of 2-year-old Emily’s childhood. “Volunteering is my passion,” Green explains, “and I want to bring Emily along and make it a part of her life right from the start.”
She found various ways to help Emily understand the idea of giving before receiving during the holidays by connecting with different local civic-minded mom groups on MeetUp, like Collin County Playdates and various Facebook pages. Through these organizations, she and Emily take part in easy volunteering projects, such as baking cookies for neighbors or delivering treats to the local fire station. Green says this is a wonderful way to communicate to her daughter what is truly important. “While she’s young, I want to create a foundation for service, and these groups make it easy to help us focus on giving to others,” Green explains.
Kunovich agrees that the best way to create a shift in your household is through intentional focus. Throughout the year, she and her husband have “consumption free” weekends, where their family commits to not spend any money on food or entertainment for an entire weekend. They take the money that they would have spent and put it in a jar to demonstrate how all of their spending can add up. “These weekends are powerful,” she says, “they force us to get creative.” She says that her family spends more quality time outside enjoying nature and just being in the moment during these weekends.
Before the holidays, she also talks to her kids about “preparing their space” for gifts, meaning that they need to donate some items to make room for new things or decide they want fewer new toys. “It’s a positive experience because they feel like they are making space for something new and exciting,” she explains.
For Alderton, she has decided that this year, her family will incorporate asking for gifts for donation in lieu of birthday presents. It’s her first step towards intentionally battling materialism. “I want them to understand that gifts are a blessing, and that it’s fun to think of others too,” Alderton says.
Published December 2015