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Culture Challenge of the Week: 'Must-Haves' for Christmas

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

"He's been asking me for weeks to get him a Nintendo DSi for Christmas," Alicia explained. 

Her son, Alex, is only nine. Christmas is well over a month away but he's been relentlessly pressing for the "must-have" electronic toy that his classmates already own. Money is tight for Alicia's family these days, and the handheld device starts at 149.99. Games are extra, at $35 a pop. 

Alicia doesn't indulge in expensive clothes, trendy bags, or "must have" purchases-at least for herself. But when it comes to her son, mom-guilt too easily clouds her perspective.  

And retailers and advertising gurus wouldn't have it any other way. As one pollster for the retail industry put it, "It's not all about being cheap this year." 

One toy company sends out something called, The Great Big Christmas Book. I foolishly thought that this advertising book might, in the midst of the toy ads, suggest the real reason for the season---the birth of Jesus Christ.  Not to be. The book invites kids to "start flipping through the pages to show their parents - and Santa - the toys that will WOW them on Christmas morning," said a senior executive for the toy company. Kids can check the item off in the box provided, and mom and dad have an instant "gimme" list.  

But our children's hearts are the poorer for it. Marketers manipulate the Christmas season to make our children want ever more "stuff"  - to focus on how much they can "get".  Remember that old joke, "He who dies with the most toys wins"?  Come Christmas morning, many kids - and so many of their parents - act as if that sick joke were true. 

How to save your family from merchandise mayhem 

Do your best to cut-off the constant onslaught of ads targeted at your children this Christmas season. Poring over ads in search of "something I might want" not only creates an ever-growing list but a habit of greed and discontent.  And face it, if a kid has to look at a book or magazine for an idea of what he "wants" then he never really wanted it in the first place. In fact, he probably never even thought about it before. 

Instead, take cues from your child's life to find out the one or two things he really has his heart set on.  We all remember what it was like to be "dying" for that special bike, or in the case of the classic movie, The Christmas Story, that Red Rider BB gun. And our parents, like theirs before them, often made great sacrifices to make Christmas dreams come true.  Consider your child's request in light of your own family values and budget, and determine early on what you will do.  If you decide against the purchase, find some way to temper the childhood hopes. One option is to help your child come up with a list of ways he can earn and save money over the next six months or so in order to buy the item himself.  (This simple exercise may also reveal just how important the item really is - or isn't - to your child.) 

Once you've acknowledged the reality of "desire" you can then turn your child's attention and time to encouraging him to make a list for others-gifts to be given, not received.  Children need to be trained in how to develop generous habits of heart.  Tell them to spend time thinking about the person who is to receive the gift, and then balance that with how much the child actually has to spend. The attentiveness taps into a warm stream of affection for the recipient, and the child's own money issues can help him to understand yours.

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