Worried that the media is turning your child into a professional mini-consumer whose main focus is on getting more stuff? Pop culture, ads and TV shows all play into how our kids see the holidays — and themselves. Today’s guest blog post comes from child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. George Drinka.
As we enter the holiday season, we can expect to experience in every family room across America a stupefying collision of two societal sentiments. The one embodies the original spirit of the holidays: the message of love of family, brotherly and sisterly love, and a sense of community and spiritual uplift. The other is perhaps best epitomized by Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when frenzied consumer spending pushes many American stores from the red into the black for the calendar year.
While parents are usually aware of the tension between these two spirits of the holidays and the need to temper their buying regardless of how deeply they love their kids, their offspring are usually oblivious to this conflict. Children spend more and more of their leisure time encamped before screens, watching their favorite sitcoms or cartoon series, buried in video games, or peeking at unfiltered YouTube film shorts on the Internet. As we run off to the shopping malls to buy our kids presents, we find the kids at home peppered by cheery messages in the form of advertisements that serve as bookends, so to speak, for their favorite shows.
While these advertisements are usually humorous, engaging, and supposedly kid-friendly, the pop culture in which children live is quite deceiving. Essentially, the media works to condition children to be consumers looking after their own pleasures rather than human beings interested in the wellbeing of others.
Media advertisements, always crafted by adults other than the kids’ parents, are carefully devised and audience-tested to do one thing: sell our children a product. This mission is done so cleverly that the kid thinks that buying the product was his or her idea, not a media message at all. And the child clamors for the parent to go get it.
Of course, there is nothing wrong in itself with humans buying and using consumer items. After all, the economic downturn through which we have been living would be much diminished if consumers had more buying power, which would fuel the sales of many big ticket items. But the problem arises for humans and especially for children when items “need to be” purchased in order for the child to feel good inside, to fend off sorrow or boredom, loneliness or internal confusion.
In my work as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I have seen scores of kids who turn to eating, drinking alcohol, buying clothing or make-up in order to bury feelings of inadequacy, sadness, and shame. And this trend starts earlier still when kids clamor for certain toys or dolls or games, which they play for a few months and then discard, relegating to some closet or dusty shelf. Also, I have known many kids who begin to define who they are as humans on what they own or wear, what games they receive on Christmas day or their birthday. While the fun seems real enough, the person is only momentarily gratified. This activity of consuming is a truly shallow way to define the self. Our society, however, often encourages such self-definition, which flies in the face of the original meaning of the holidays.
How then can we impact on these firmly-entrenched cultural trends? I recommend three very basic approaches:
1. First, parents do well to set a dollar limit on what they will spend on their children’s holiday presents. This will both quell your anxiety about the price tag and clarify for the kids that limits are not simply necessary but actually good for them developmentally.
2. Second, work to create a tradition of children giving presents too:to parents, siblings and best friends. In so doing, parents will underscore the central premise of the holidays: giving rather than receiving.
3. Finally, children should be encouraged to write letters to extended family members like grandparents or cherished aunts, uncles or cousins as part of a holiday tradition. Let them know that their expression of love and appreciation to significant others is in many ways the greatest gift of all.
George F. Drinka, MD is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author of The Birth of Neurosis: Myth, Malady and the Victorians (Simon & Schuster). He has also written for the New York Time Book Review and the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. Learn more about Dr. Drinka here.