Monday, November 21, 2011

Handling the Holidays

This post was written by guest blogger Brandy King of Knowledge Linking. After spending the last eight years working with research on children and media, Brandy now faces the challenge of raising two young boys in our media-saturated and commercialized world.
Yet another holiday season has arrived with its doorbuster sales, cyber deals, and mile-long wish lists. What does a commercial-free family do when faced with the consumerism and commercialism that rule the season?

The wide variety of answers I received from some like-minded parents demonstrates just how many different ways there are to handle all the holiday hoopla. How does your family respond to these situations? Tell us in the comments!
Do you say anything specific to gift-givers about your preference for commercial-free gifts?
  • “Instead, we’ve expressed a preference for good quality toys that have an educational component, that encourage free, imaginative play and that aren't too noisy. Since both our moms were teachers, they appreciate this line of thinking!”
  • “No, I’m afraid to sound ungrateful by limiting people’s generosity.”
  • “The conversation about WHY we feel this way can get involved, especially in a large Italian family where everyone has an opinion. Sometimes it's easier to just let it slide and hide the toys at my mom’s house until I can figure out what to do with them.”
If your kids receive commercialized gifts, do you keep them?
  • “We have donated or consigned several items we thought were not for us.”
  • “It depends on the gift. I let the kids wear pajamas with characters on them, but do not allow characters on any other clothes since I don’t want my children to walk around like an advertisement.”
  • “We’ve given some items away, but there are some exceptions, of course. My sister made a pillow case for my daughter with Kermit fabric. We kept it and refer to it as "Auntie’s frog pillow." I think the difference with this gift versus others lies with intention and marketing (or, at least, that's what my gut tells me). The pillow case wasn't created to pad the coffers of a company, it was lovingly sewn by my daughter's aunt. “
What do you do if your children ask for an item you don’t particularly want them to have (commercial or not)?
  • “When my 5 year old daughter asked for a Hannah Montana backpack, I talked to her about what she liked about it. We figured out that she liked the “rock-star vibe” and found a neat black backpack with a microphone and guitar on it. Now she loves that she has something unique!”
  • “When my daughter saw dolls she liked in a catalog, I asked her why she liked them (rather than telling her that she shouldn't like them) and she told me it was because they all had pets. I was able to use this to move the conversation to pets in general, and specifically animal toys. It was both a conversation about marketing (at a two-year-old's level) as well as redirection to something more appropriate in my book.”
  • “With my fourth grader, I’m apt to ask questions and consider his answers. “Why do you want this product? How did you learn about it? What makes it appealing to you? Do you think it would still be fun in a month? A season? A year? How much money is reasonable to spend on something you’re not sure you’ll play with six months from now?” Also, I remind him that he is old enough to save up his own money to purchase items I may not be inclined to get him.”
As you can see in these answers, there are a lot of different strategies parents use to combat commercialism, and they draw the line differently depending on the situation. What's your advice for making it through the holidays as a commercial-free family? Weigh in below!


  1. I've been so resistant to the non stop onslaught of marketing of Disney Princesses to my pre-school age daughter. She recently received a princess puzzle as a gift. She has spent several hours doing the puzzle over and over. We've used the puzzle as a opportunity to talk about what she likes about the princesses and what are the personality traits that are important in "real" people. Kindness, independence, generosity, intellgence, etc. vs. being pretty, materialistic and needy. There's no way to be 100% commercial free, so we have to take the opportunities that present to educate our kids.

  2. We have three rules for our daughter's gifts:

    1) A limit of one present from each person per occasion.
    2) No licensed characters or commercial logos.
    3) Nothing electronic (i.e. anything that requires batteries).

    It's uncomfortable sometimes to present these rules to gift-buyers, but if you're going to resist commercialism, you need everyone's cooperation. Not everyone understands or agrees with our rules, but they don't have to; they just need to adhere to them.

  3. I really appreciate this blog and the range of options this particular post offers. You're not trying to ram a highly specific message down my throat, but the idea of taking some intentional positive steps away from being corporation serving peons.

    Our little girl is not yet two so this whole world is still ahead of us, but I hope our natural style of considering our possessions, our purchases and how we spend our time and money will have an influence on her. The big goal of course is that she can make her own decisions when she's ready.

  4. My partner and I often give each other "freebie" certificates as gifts... "This certificate entitles to the bearer to one night at the movies," or that sort of thing.

    For my birthday this year, our 10 yr. old son decided to give me a "freebie" certificate for 30 days of him making his own breakfast.

    Best. Present. Ever.

  5. Shelley, wow - a child being independent IS a great present, cant wait til mine are old enough :-) Love that he learned that by watching your example, too!

    Gregoryo - Thanks for the compliment, it is exactly what I hope to accomplish with my series of posts - to present a wide range of possible responses to resisting commercialism in our lives. Not everyone does it the same way, and there are lots of degrees in which people feel comfortable resisting it.

  6. I use 'freecycling' a lot, and will do another post again on this December to gift some brand new books/toys like last year:

  7. Oh, and Brandy, excellent post as always. Shelley, great idea. Though I wish my TEEN would adhere to that, as it sometimes seems they 'go backwards' a bit when it comes to proper self-care--I'm finding it's the only way I can ensure she's got energy for school since in HS they 'skip lunch' to chat too much!

    I've also given "the gift of time" (when it comes to teachers/neighbors/gal pals whatevs) by providing home-cooked meals as I find all too often people only come by with 'care packages' when people are SICK instead of healthy---

    I offer choices (menu style) w/a delivery date/time preference so they can place their homecooked 'order' --Kind of a 'waiters on wheels' from the heart...

  8. Atlanta and Rene talk about techniques for coping with the vacations, which include coping with family, friends... and the in-laws

  9. I've told people who give us gifts what our rules are- no battery operated toys and no characters on anything, and that we prefer wood and natural materials. Some have been offended, and some have taken it in stride (it's just one of many unconventional choices our family makes). I've even called the dentist in advance of our visit and said "I know you and I both want to make this visit a positive experience for my children." followed by telling them that my kids aren't allowed to watch movies (since dentists have movies) and aren't allowed to have anything (including toothbrushes) with character toothbrushes, telling them if they have no character toothbrushes then that's great, and if not I can just buy them toothbrushes later. The dentist's office was very receptive.

    If they get something with characters on it, I will replace it with something similar that they like with no characters.

    However I do pick my battles and there have been some things I have let go. I strongly prefer the Waldorf-style dolls, but my kids from the beginning have preferred the plastic faced dolls. So I did get them some Corolle dolls- still no characters and not battery-operated, but plastic nonetheless. Also I let them have legos even though they are plastic- there just isn't a similar wood substitute. We let them have plastic things when those things don't exist in wood or natural materials or aren't as good in natural materials AND we think it's a good thing to have. Toys still have to be open-ended and involve creative play. Characters and battery operated toys have been my non-negotiables.

    We try to find things they like that aren't characters. My daughter (now 7) used to be into princesses, so we found her non-Disney princess stuff, for example a princess puzzle by Ravensburger. It's just a generic princess, but since she's never seen the movies, she doesn't care. There are also lots of non-Disney princess books (and some are much better written than the Disney ones!)

    We also try not to go to typical commercial toy stores or the toy departments in department stores. We've found a few great stores that have no characters, and we go there if the kids have birthday or Christmas money to spend. Or I will help them order something online that is more along the lines of what we want to have in our family.

  10. For those of you who don't allow battery-operated toys, why? I find this restriction curious (as well as seemingly unrelated to commercialism). My kids have a toy battery-operated drill they love, play with flashlights, have an electric keyboard, etc. I'm interested in hearing more about this.

  11. Anonymous,

    I think a lot of battery-operated toys aren't very open ended or creative. They tend to be single-function items that prescribe for the child how they should play with it. They're also often plastic. For many families, these are things that they try to avoid along with commercialism. My one year old received an electronic xylophone/learning toy for her birthday last month. In an effort to give this toy bells and whistles (talking animals and lights), the manufacturer neglected to tune the xylophone part of the toy. It sounds wretched. I'm sure that there are some higher quality battery-operated toys, but if you're trying to get relatives to avoid poorly made garbage like this xylophone, it may be best to simply place a ban on batteries in the first place.

  12. No battery-powered toys is a little extreme in my book, and calling them un-"opened ended" or un-"creative" is throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    I've got two boys, 7 and 3, and the oldest one already understands the difference between disposable and rechargeable batteries. When they are old enough they will get rechargeable electric-powered radio controlled model cars that you build from a kit, made here in the USA with replaceable parts, and learn how a battery operated car works.

    Not all battery operated things are inherently evil, and lumping them all into one category is a little short sighted.

  13. I don't see why everybody hates electric toys so much. Quit a few creative toys utilize electricity, such as legos which have bricks that glow, make noise, and the Mindstorms NXT which allows you to make a robot and program it. Snap circuits are a way for kids to have fun and learn about and make simple circuits. You could use R/C cars to encourage kids to make racetracks out of household materials.

    In short not all electric toys are bad, I will admit that some such as the more obnoxious ones should be discourage if not banned.