There is a part of me that wants my kids to feel, at least in some relatively painless and abstract way, that the world is fucked.
I know that denying my kids presents won’t raise their consciousness; they’re three and six. A cheerful pile of gifts is not analogous with the sewer drain into which so many of my hopes for progress and assumptions about cultural cohesion have disappeared. But I can’t shake this certainty that some of our ways of living aren’t working. Does conspicuous consumption help our children grow into good citizens? Or does it make them less able take charge of their own happiness?
I buy my children gifts because I love them and want to show them that, but I also do it to shut them up. I don’t want to hear them whining about not having received what they asked for. But quite suddenly, this arrangement has come to seem cynical and depressing to me. I don’t want to appease them into silence—I want to help them to be resourceful and self-reliant. Those are qualities you can’t buy, no matter what some people might tell you. I’m not about to sanctimoniously conclude that we should only be buying our kids stackable wooden elephants and little handmade dolls made of felt. But I do think that toys often act as anesthetics, and that the way we shop for our kids is often at odds with what we want for them, or how we hope they turn out to be.
There is plenty of evidence that links consumerism with an overall diminished quality of life. In his 2002 book The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser presents data that indicates that materialistic value systems are often linked to lower self-esteem, higher volatility in relationships, and increased difficulty in feeling “competent.” Back in 1997, the Association for Consumer Research published a report indicating that children raised with “materialistic values” were more susceptible to influence from peers. Materialism isn’t innate in kids; parents nurture it by rewarding behaviors with treats and expressing love with gifts. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research indicated that parents’ use of treats to incentivize and reward good behavior can lead to materialistic attitudes in kids that can have worrisome implications later in life.
Despite all this proof that burying your kids in shit will probably make them unhappy in the long term—a lot of which amounts to common sense—many parents know themselves best as consumers. We come together around the stuff we choose. We see each other in among the stuff. In a “mixed gathering” of political opinions, stroller brands and Lego kits are a kind of Switzerland. Being a “smart consumer” is a way that a lot of us perform and experience competence, and how we inhabit the role of provider to our kids. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do—provide? To opt out of it all and try to buy less stuff, or care less about what the stuff is and represents, is borderline antisocial—it feels like loudly and proudly not voting. Or worse, it feels cluelessly elite. If I had been raised in a poor family, I might be proud to buy my kids the latest toys. Why would I deny them the things that I had wanted as a kid, but couldn’t afford?
Rich or not, furnishing our kids with the correct objects is foundational to North American parental identity and parsing the subtle differences only reinforces my point. I am cheap as hell and pretty indifferent to trends, but I have experienced acute self-doubt while hanging out with families who outfit their kids in top-shelf stuff. In my darkest moments I have wondered if my indifference to stuff is in fact an indifference to excellence.
When am I proudest of my kids? I think it’s when they’re playing made-up games by themselves. They’ve figured it out, they don’t need me. A couple months after I had my first son, we visited my in-laws in Maine. I sat out on their lawn with the baby in my lap, and I remember thinking, “I can’t wait till a few years from now, when he can play on this beautiful grass and I can drink a beer and watch.” This is something else that unites many of us across Trump’s America: We all love kids who are “not spoiled” and “independent”—little Huck Finns and Laura Ingalls Wilders. And yet we still insist on buying so much stuff for them. We do it for love, and so our kids won’t feel left out, and some of us definitely do it to impress each other with our good taste and cash-flow.
I suppose the level-headed solution to my little conundrum about Christmas presents is to shop locally, and buy interesting stuff from small businesses—basically, “put my money where my mouth is.” Some kids might be ready to accept, in lieu of a material gift, a charitable donation made in their name. These are all good and reasonable ideas. Maybe they are the only solution, but it’s still not scratching the itch I have—the itch that says that our very identities as consumers, and the ways in which those identities allow us to ignore other ways that we relate to each other, are both bogus and sad.
Meanwhile, my no-presents ship has already sailed. My six-year-old has been asking for a tracksuit since September. He doesn’t know the name Adidas but I know that’s the kind he wants. On Black Friday I went downtown during my lunch break to buy him one. Employees were handing out extra-markdown coupons at the entrance of the Sports Experts and the lineups for for the registers snaked all over the store. In French, Black Friday is “vendredi fou,” “crazy Friday.” It wasn’t crazy in there, but it was tense and unfun.
At the rack of kids’ Adidas tracksuits, I joined a dad in with a fresh haircut, expensive glasses and a camel-hair coat. We both sifted through the merch with furrowed brows, neither of us seemed to be finding what we were looking for. “They have any other colors on your side?” he asked me. I took out an earbud (I was listening to Joni Mitchell’s Hejira while shopping, for maximum cognitive dissonance.) “Just blue and white,” I said. “My son wants black,” he said, dismayed. I gave him a sympathetic smile. “You know how it is,” he said, smiling too now. “I do,” I said.
Kathryn Jezer-Morton is a writer and graduate student in Montreal.