The advice columns are beginning to reflect the season. A dismayed mother wrote to the Washington Post, "I love the holidays, but they bring out the greed in my children. From Halloween to Christmas Eve, all I hear is 'gimme, gimme and gimme.' How can I make them think of others instead of themselves?" The always wise Marguerite Kelly offered some sound suggestions -- like having the kids make fudge to give out to friends and neighbors "so your children will find out how good it feels to be a giver as well as a getter."
I sympathize with the mother. From the time my children reached the age of 7 or 8, I was overwhelmed by the orgy of gift giving at this time of year. Don't misunderstand, I'm not Scrooge. Nor would anyone compare me to John D. Rockefeller's mother. In "Titan," biographer Ron Chernow relates that Rockefeller's mother, a strict Baptist and rigid disciplinarian, once said, "I'm glad that I know what my son wants for Christmas so that I (can) deny it to him."
Mrs. Rockefeller's stern determination to instill discipline in her offspring was clearly extreme, yet she lived in an age when even wealthy children were expected to be satisfied with a toy airplane or a new doll. Now, even unwealthy children expect far more.
The "hottest toys" for 2010, according to one website, were said to include "Professor Lupin's Laboratory," a Harry Potter-themed Lego that sells for $149.88; Barbie "My Favorite Time Capsule" dolls that range from $35 to $55, and the Nintendo Wii, which sells for $200 not including the games. That's real money. And they don't just get one or two toys. My kids tend to get many toys on Hanukkah (or did when they were younger -- though most were not expensive) -- so many that when we donate old toys, they fill huge black plastic trash bags.
Even if we were to limit the number of toys the children received from us, they would still get quite a haul from grandparents, aunts, uncles, and assorted family friends. And it would be churlish to tell generous friends and relations to restrict their giving.
No, for good or ill, in our abundant society (though with 10 percent unemployment, many more kids are doubtless having to settle for less than anyone would like this year), it's impossible to staunch the flow of presents.
Serious Christians have long complained about the commercialization of Christmas. And one hears some Jews grumble that Hanukkah has been perverted into a gift-giving extravaganza only because Jewish parents don't want their children to feel sorely neglected at Christmastime, not because it's an authentic part of the festival. Of course, before the rise of mass marketing in the 19th century, neither winter holiday featured more than modest exchanges of gifts. Santa Claus (at least as he is understood today) is of fairly recent vintage as well.
But exuberant gift giving is sewn into the national psyche now. Besides, the economy has come to depend upon it. Holiday shopping accounts for between 25 and 40 percent of annual sales for retailers.
The challenge for parents who don't want to spoil their children, it seems to me, is to inculcate gratitude. When kids get an opportunity to share with the less fortunate, they cannot help but be aware of their own good fortune even as they brighten someone else's day. We have taken wrapped new presents to a women's shelter -- though to my disappointment, we were asked to remove the wrapping before the presents could be offered to the kids (a lamentable sign of the times perhaps). And while we weren't serenaded by angelic towheads -- we didn't even get to see the recipients -- we did accomplish the basic mission.
In fact, instilling gratitude should be a year-round activity. Even in the midst of economic hard times for many, we cannot lose sight of the incredible bounty this country has bestowed on all of us. While we shouldn't teach history as an exercise in chauvinism, we can and should nevertheless convey to every American child that one of the most precious gifts anyone can receive is to be born in the United States of America.