When we were kids, we would wait with eager anticipation for the arrival of the Sears Wishbook. After Mom had a chance to peruse it, it was our turn. With pens in hand we would scan the glossy pages, skipping quickly over anything that looked naughty (like the lingerie pages), and heading straight for the toys. In awe of the world full of wonderful things that we had never seen or even imagined, we’d page through it carefully and with what was almost reverence. The first time through, we’d just look. The second or third times, we’d put little marks beside the ones that caught our attention. And then, when we were brave enough to mark up the shiny pages, we’d circle the things we dreamed of, going back several times to gaze upon the pure beauty of all those things we knew we’d never own.
It was all about the dreams, really. We were poor growing up. If we got one small toy (a doll, a second-hand bike) we were lucky. We never really believed those extravagant things in the Wishbook would arrive under our tree on Christmas morning. It was just too far out of reach. But that didn’t stop the dreaming. I remember the years I dreamed about the Barbie camper van that my cousin Christine was lucky enough to own. I coveted that camper van with every fibre of my being.
As much as we loved to dream about the beautiful things on those glossy pages, I don’t really remember it feeling too painful knowing that we wouldn’t own them. Sometimes dreaming is enough. Sometimes owning only serves to extinguish the dream. We were happy kids. Yes, sometimes we felt the sting of poverty, wishing we could have what some of the other kids had, but mostly we were content with our second-hand bikes and our hand-me-down clothes. Even though I never owned the camper van, I remember all the things my friend Laurel and I constructed for our Barbies to make up for its absence – three-story houses out of stacked chairs, cars out of cardboard boxes, you name it.
My kids have a lot more toys than I ever had, but still they have to live with less than most of their friends. Sometimes it’s about what we can or can’t afford and sometimes it’s about what we choose not to buy. Nikki wants a Gameboy more than anything else she can imagine. She knows she won’t get a Gameboy. Too expensive and too anti-social for my Christmas-buying list. And maybe it’s better for her to dream about it than to own it. If she owned it, she’d probably be bored with it in a couple of months.
Don’t get me wrong – I DO like to indulge my kids (and myself) now and then. When we sold the camper last year, every member of the family got to buy something their heart cherished. Nikki got an mp3 player, Julie got a bean-bag chair, and Maddie got some toy she had her eye on (I can't remember which). I got my digital camera. Marcel got a new bike. But that was a rare moment. I think the indulgences have to be rare and special for them to mean anything. In between, some of the dreams have to remain just that – dreams.
All of this is my meandering way of getting to the original point of this post – bashing Wal-mart. Have you heard about their new advertising ploy – Toyland? It’s a website where kids get to play a “game”, pick out all the things they want, and it then sends an email to their parents with their wishlist, saving them the time of writing it down, and helping them do some of the parent-nagging. Is it just me, or does this turn your stomach too? Maybe it’s no different from the Sears Wishbook, and maybe I should just chill out, but it bugs me how sneaky advertising is getting these days – especially when it comes to marketing for kids. To disguise a marketing campaign as a cheery little game, where little elves appear to tell you how cool each toy is, seems just a little too manipulative. I’ve gotten used to all the advertising on the internet, but I’m an adult and I can tune it out fairly successfully. Although we often talk about it with the girls so that they’ll be able to recognize clever marketing when they see it, they’re still very susceptible to what the advertisements tell them they should want.
In one of Anne Lamott’s stories (I think it was in Traveling Mercies), she talked about how it stunned her to realize how “entitled” her son seemed to feel – like the world owed him all kinds of things and he could expect to receive them. That’s what I fear in my kids – that with all this advertising being pelted at them thousands of times a day, they will begin to feel that owning all that stuff is the norm rather than the exception.
In spite of all of this, though, I have to say that our kids are fairly well grounded and not particularly greedy. Oh, they beg for things like every other kid, but they don’t make a lot of demands. They know their parents’ buying-power is limited and they’re also well aware that there are a lot of things we choose not to buy even if we can afford it. Mostly, they’re okay with that. As much as advertising to kids makes me see red now and then, I still believe it is possible to influence your kids to not be overly materialistic. (In fact, I've so indoctrinated my girls that the running joke in our house is that I start to twitch if we get too close to Walmart. I boycotted it a couple of years ago and haven't been back since. In fact, they've been so influenced by my shopping choices that their favourite store is Ten Thousand Villages, a fair-trade store with cool stuff from all over the world.)
I guess I just get a little weary of fighting the Wal-marts of this world to re-inforce my values with my kids. Those mega-stores have got the big bucks behind them, and a bunch of highly paid marketing gurus. My arsenal seems a little paltry in comparison.