Here we are, two and half weeks away from Thanksgiving -- several weeks longer until Christmas -- and we’ve already been served a full helping of holiday marketing. Did you notice how quickly the red and green candies replaced the aisles of candy corn and other Halloween goodies at local stores? Haven’t you heard about the “hottest,” “most popular,” deals “hitting stores,” and how retailers are already “slashing prices?” Who decides which toys are most popular, before they’ve even been offered for sale? Did you know that the softly stuffed fish that accompanies the Little Mermaid on her Disney-created adventures looks very different than the fish from that other animated story? My 4-year-old does. She pointed that out on our recent trip to the Disney Store, where she added the newer, more expensive, striped fish to her holiday wish-list. We were only there because we had to buy a brand-new, overpriced mermaid costume for her little sister to wear for Halloween, to match the secondhand mermaid costume we’d acquired at a tag sale. The stress over what to buy on a budget, when to say “no” and how to get everything done before Christmas is enough to send me into a leftover candy corn-induced sugar spree. I decided to ask two brilliant mothers of young children, both with doctorates in their respective fields, about coping with holiday marketing. Their insights add some perspective on conscious consumerism for parents.
Dawn Rundman’s doctorate is in developmental psychology. She works as a Senior Resource Manager at Augsburg Fortress Publishers
. She also presents early faith formation workshops and seminars nationwide. Rundman confirms it’s no accident that very young children can identify logos for retailers and the brands they carry. She’s spent years studying the way companies market to parents, grandparents and even the children themselves. “Christmas is a time when all of those companies are pulling out all the stops.” Rundman cautions that coping with holiday shopping overload needs to begin long before parents and kids start loading into the shopping cart. What parent hasn’t had the experience of feeling plain exhausted from having to say “no“ and dealing with tantrums in the toy aisle? “If you really want to avoid that sort of exhaustion that you feel, you really have to prepare yourself for going into those situations, “ says Rundman. “Be ready for that, otherwise you’re one mom (or dad) in this sea of merchandise.”
Much of Rundman’s faith-based work is reflected in her and her husband’s Christian parenting, with one of them always being at home for their young children. She explains that her framework for keeping the focus on Christ includes deliberately emphasizing faith-based rituals and family activities that can take the pressure off of consumption. “Coming from a religious tradition, we get each of our kids three presents. We connect with the story of Jesus receiving three gifts (from the magi).” This loving mom explains that the gifts can even be fairly modest. She and her husband don’t hesitate to explain to their children that it’s okay if they don’t buy or do everything the same as other families. They use literature like the Laura Ingles books about frontier life to help their kids reflect on expectations about Christmas gifts. Limited exposure to television commercials also helps to curb the children’s appetites for what “everyone else” might be getting this Christmas.
Another mom I spoke with is less concerned about the effects of commercials. However, she feels that a strong value system is necessary to help her family say “no” to overconsumption during the holidays. Shannon Wooden is an Assistant Professor of English at Missouri State University
, with her doctorate in English and an emphasis on Victorian novels. Wooden has researched and written about literature’s relationship to science and popular culture. When I began asking how she manages the holiday shopping frenzy, she noted that parents should ideally start long before now. “Have the conversation all year around,” she suggests. Wooden says she aims to help both students and her own children become "more astute consumers of culture." Wooden and her husband don’t practice a particular religion, yet they recognize Christmas as culturally important. “I think that lots of people who don’t celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday have to negotiate an ethics of consumerism vis-à-vis Christmas shopping. Shopping is always indicative of an ethical system.”
Like Rundman’s family, Wooden’s family limits cost and numbers of presents, and maintains a positive attitude about not needing exactly what some other family has. Wooden stresses honest and clear education about why her family makes certain decisions about spending for themselves or others. She limits glorification of violence in the toys she allows her children to have, and thinks even toys for boys can teach nurturing. “As a feminist, I have a responsibility to teach my ethics of care to my boys. I’m not convinced that they are getting it from the world. As a mom of boys, shopping gets folded into the question of caring about other people.” The most notable holiday shopping trip is when her kids get to choose one toy each for less fortunate kids and donate it to the local Toys for Tots program.