Five Ways to Tame the Gimmes

By Lindsey Townsend

“But I waaaannnt it!”

We’ve all heard that three-year-old screaming in the aisle at the Super Walmart, pitching a fit and demanding a Wedding Barbie, a monster truck or a giant-sized Hershey bar. Maybe you’ve even been guilty of giving in to that persistent whine once or twice yourself, just to quiet the uproar and avoid the disapproving glares of strangers.

In the U.S., TV commercialism-and kiddie consumerism--has reached an all-time high. Children today affect the purchase of literally billions of dollars of annual family spending, from the choice of personal computers to DVDs to breakfast cereal. So how do you raise a non-materialistic kid in a society hell-bent on worshiping materialism?

You really can do it--with a little help. Here are five ways to help bust the “gimmes”:

  1. Set ground rules. “Be sure your kids know what to expect before you leave the house,” advises Anita Lisky, a mother of two. “When we’re headed to the toy store, I let them know before we leave whether or not they can get anything. Sometimes I just say we won’t be shopping for toys today so if they see something they like, they should keep it in mind for next time. Other times, I tell them they can get something inexpensive, and I set a dollar amount, like $5.”

    And start communicating those values when your children are young, if possible. “It’s almost impossible to curtail your children’s desires when they’re older if you’ve been one of those parents who’ve given them everything they’ve ever wanted since infancy,” says Laura Gray, a psychologist with Lees Psychological Clinic in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

  2. Examine your own behavior. Peek into your own closet for a moment. Do you feel like you always “need” something-a faster computer, a newer car, a bigger house? We live in a society where many people value what they own more than who they are and how they treat their fellow man, and it’s all too easy to unconsciously absorb those values. “Maybe parents should stop modeling the whining and begging and “asking for every toy” behavior first,” suggests Margaret Mitchell, a mother of three. “I know just as many “gotta have it” parents as kids. This is a parental creation--and a parental cure.”

    Gray says that many people over-indulge their children because of their own unmet needs for love and attention. “Often I deal with parents who give their kids everything in the hope that the children will love them more and grow up happier, but instead they develop children who are never satisfied,” she says.

  3. Just say NO. It’s simple, to the point-and it works. “Show me a whiny child and I’ll show you a spineless parent,” says Ed Stecki, a father of two. “Believe it or not, if you say no enough, they stop asking.” Stecki is still practicing this rule today with his teenage daughter, who wants a TV for her own room, like all of her friends. “But my wife and I say no, and she’s OK with it. She’s probably faint dead away if we caved in,” he laughs.

    Child psychologist Dr. Kevin Leman, author of Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours, says that children don’t need material items as much as they need three old-fashioned “vitamins”: “Vitamin N for No, Vitamin R for Responsibility, and Vitamin L for Love. Go easy on the giving of things, because kids are hedonistic little creatures from the get-go. It’s your job as a parent to curb their demands.”

  4. Teach them the value of a dollar. Educate your children about finances, and make it clear there’s no “Money Tree” growing in the backyard. “When we’re on vacation, I’ll give my kids a certain amount of money-say a $20 bill-and tell them they can spend it on anything they want, but when it’s gone, it’s GONE,” says Kim Agriesti, a mother of two. “It’s amazing to watch their little brains process that information and decide whether or not they REALLY need those fish-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers! Most of the time, the answer is no,” she adds.

    Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, a parent educator and author of The Parent’s Toolshop, says that older children should be taught to select gifts within a certain budgetary limit. “For birthdays and holidays, encourage them to make a wish list of everything they want, then ask them to pick the top three items or stay within a certain dollar amount. That way they can have the fun of brainstorming but still learn to set priorities,” she says.

    If there’s a high-priced bike or other toy your child is dying for, Gray suggests “let them know that if they receive it, it will be their only toy for Christmas or their birthday that year.” And then follow through!

  5. Cultivate an “attitude of gratitude.” Teach your children through your own example how to appreciate what they have and help others who are needy. “Get your kids to focus on how good it feels to give to other people through a community activity, like donating to a food pantry, preparing meals for a homeless shelter, or giving toys to a children’s home on a regular basis,” suggests Gray. “It’s amazing how they’ll remember those experiences when they’re older.”

    Every year at Christmas, Laurie Leonard-White, a mother of two, asks her two sons to each choose a request from an Angel Tree. “We pull the name of a child their own age and let them shop for a gift, and it’s understood that this will be lieu of one of their own gifts. They look forward to giving that present each year and feel a great sense of gratification in knowing that their generosity will bring joy to someone less fortunate,” she says.