Battling the Birthday ‘Buy Me’s

As my daughter's seventh birthday approached, I thought I'd get a head start on my shopping by asking her what she'd like. She quickly responded, "a CD player," but she wasn't done. She continued with a very lengthy list that included a VCR, television, telephone, at least 10 CDs, a few movies, and the latest Sega game. If I had given her everything on her list, I would have spent over $600. Was it really just a few years ago that she would get excited every time I dressed her in the clothes she’d received as gifts from her Aunt Lesley? I thought I had a truly special child who could understand it was the person and not the present that mattered. I hadn't noticed she'd changed and become so materialistic. I'd ignored her comments as we wandered through stores. She'd see something she liked and would say, "I can get that for my birthday." I'd laugh and remind her that the birthday in question was 11 months away. I forgot the comments, but she didn't. As her birthday approached, she prepared for the haul of a lifetime. For her, a year's worth of put-off purchases were due — and she planned on collecting. As soon as I realized how large her list was, I made it clear she wouldn't be receiving it all. My husband balked at her list because it didn't even include toys — and she is, despite her 7-year-old protests, just a child.

Children or Consumers? To retailers, she's been a prime target for years, so I shouldn't be surprised that the ads she sees are taking their toll. And it isn't just my daughter who is being unduly influenced. Studies have shown that children younger than 12 influence a third of the big-ticket items purchased by adults. That includes what vacation to take, which stereo to buy, and even what car to drive. So is it any wonder our children try so hard to influence us to make big birthday buys? "It's a simple equation," says Elizabeth Pantley, mother of four and author of Perfect Parenting: The Dictionary of 1,000 Parenting Tips. "Take lots of exciting TV commercials and add a peek at a friend's prized possessions. Multiply the result by attractive store displays. Sprinkle liberally with a child's natural desires, and the result is `The Gimmes.'" When Candace Priore's son turned 11 last year, his birthday wish list included "a Nintendo 64, a stereo, a TV for his room and lots of other things," recalls Priore. "He got the Nintendo and a couple of games from us, but that was it. He was OK with that because he knew he had no chance of getting a TV and DVD player for his room. He tried though," she says. Children will definitely try to get as much loot as they can on their special day, but it is up to the parents to set the limits. "Our most important part of raising our children is not to make our children happy," Pantley says. "It's to make them into responsible adults. Part of that process is teaching them about life." Pantley suggests staying away from phrases such as, "We can't afford that," when telling a child he can't have a certain gift. "The message is that if you could, you'd buy those $200 shoes," Pantley says. The message should be that $200 shoes aren't necessary when $30 shoes work just as well.

Preparing for Battle Parents can prevent a bout of the "Birthday Buy Mes" by taking steps long before the birthday arrives. When your child indicates he wants something while shopping, pull out a notebook and mark it down on a "wish list”. Instead of telling your child she can't have it, ask them about her preferences. Make it clear that you will use the wish list when you go birthday shopping, but that not all wishes will be fulfilled. Children don't always know what they want for their birthday, so Pantley suggests parents don't ask. "Parents usually know what their kids want better than they do," she says. "What do they spend their time with most now? What really sparks their attention?" Hannah Hayes uses this method when shopping for her 6-year-old son's birthday gift. "I usually have an idea of what he wants, and I suggest it," Hayes says. "If he wants something badly, I'll suggest he ask for it for his birthday. He gets to ask for one gift — we don't do lists."

Party Time Prevention Even if a parent has managed to limit their own present purchase for the birthday gal, it can be a little harder to rein in generous grandparents and friends. One way to limit the loot is with the party planning. Start early by limiting the guest list. "This year, we had 16 children and everything went fine, but I warned my son, from here on out we are limiting it to seven or eight," Hayes says. "He's had a tough time at school, and most of his friends are in another class, so I let the guest list get out of hand." Hayes says she felt the number of presents her son received was absurd — and overindulgent. "Don't have a party every cotton-picking year," suggests Valerie Botbyl, mother of a teenage son. "Party for the big ones. Not having a party every year also helps them not expect a boatload of presents. I've been to too many parties with hoards of screaming little kids, only to leave the birthday mom in tatters and no one to help her clean up." You may even want to have your child choose a present or a party rather than giving both. "In our family, the birthday party is the present they get from Mom and Dad," Pantley says. "Let them know how much you're spending to help them understand the value of each part and each piece. Explain the pizza costs $30, which is three months of their allowance."

Focus on Family and Friends When it comes time for the party, whether it is a blowout affair or a small family gathering, help your child cope with the excitement by discussing the meaning of the day. Hannah Hayes starts talking to her son long before the party starts. She explains birthdays are a time of celebrating a life and not about presents. It's a concept she knows her son will learn over time, and not in ne day. "I always suggest parents talk to their child before the party begins," Pantley says. "Rehearse how a child should respond after a gift is opened." She recommends covering all the bases, such as rehearsing reactions when your child doesn't like a gift, or already has it. For the party, don't make presents the main attraction. Instead, focus the celebration on the people and the joy of being together. Put the focus elsewhere by creating a special ritual, such as marking the child's annual growth or making a special meal. "Find different ways to lavish attention on the child without it always being centered on the presents," Pantley suggests. When it comes time to open the gifts, sit down next to your child. That way you can help encourage them to make appropriate comments. "I think it's a learning experience," Hayes says. "Kids naturally love presents and the attention, and they learn to expect it and they get worked up about it. Parents need to make a conscious effort to put things into perspective, and it sure isn't easy." Persistence does pay off, Hayes says. Last year her son demanded presents from everyone he met. This year, she describes his behavior as gracious and generous. "He didn't cry when other kids opened his presents and played with them — like I did when I was 6," Hayes said. "And he was very happy with everything and thanked us over and over again for a wonderful birthday, so maybe he's hearing something."

Thankful Teachings The teaching doesn't stop once the party is over. The often-overlooked thank-you notes should be a big part of your child's post-party plans. "Soon after your child receives a gift, sit down with her and help her compose and write a thank-you note," Pantley suggests. "Create a new family rule: You may only play with a gift after the thank-you note has been written. This will get the job done quicker than anything else." Pantley says it's important to teach your children to write thank-you notes whenever a gift has been received. Encouraging your children to donate a few under-used toys to needy children in order to free up storage space for the new items can also help your child recognize not everyone gets what they want just by asking. Here's hoping this year, we all manage to avoid the "Birthday Buy Me" battle, and enjoy the best part: celebrating another year in the race to adulthood. Not to mention the ice cream and cake.