God rest ye harried parents, let nothing you dismay

November 29, 1990|By Holly Selby

By the third week of November, Susan Cullison had scoured a dozen stores for a Fisher-Price 3-on-1 Tournament Table for her 11-year-old son.

She had called numerous other stores to discover if they had the combination pool, air-hockey and Ping-Pong table.

She had begged friends to check around Philadelphia for the toy.

In short, the Carroll County resident was neck deep in the Perennial Parent Trap. "Every year, I go running like a chicken without a head to find the gift," she says. "I've been through the Nintendo phase and the Cabbage Patch phase."

No matter what resolutions they may have made the year before, as the holidays approach, many parents begin their seasonal scramble for the perfect present.

And for what?

"For the look on their faces," says Dundalk resident Lynn Langston, who has two daughters. "Just to see the kids' faces. Just for a moment. You have to see it. . . . It's hard to explain."

But so often, it seems, the toys that are desired the most are treasured the least. "It was worth it for that one minute, but she hasn't played with them since," says Susan Stielper, of Carroll County, about her wild hunt in 1989 for Wizard of Oz figurines for her daughter.

Many parents feel torn between making their child happy -- even if it's only for that magical but fleeting moment under the tree -- and falling prey to marketing techniques used by toy companies, says Carol Seefeldt, professor at the Institute for Child Study at TC the University of Maryland at College Park.

And Ms. Seefeldt, a former consultant for the toy industry, adds: "Have no doubt about the ability of toy companies to make you buy whatever they want you to buy. A great deal of time and money goes into the planning and promoting of toys."

Television programs that create story lines for toys make those products especially appealing to children, she says. "Often, kids and maybe parents can't separate the fact that those television programs are an hourlong advertisement for the Care Bears or the Turtles."

However, it's perfectly natural to want to please your child, she says. The tricky part is balancing the desire to please with common sense, or what you feel is appropriate. "There is that commercialism. There is that desire to do only the best for the child.

"And there's a guilt edge [caused by] two parents being employed outside the home or the high number of divorced families. There are parents who think they need the most expensive toy because [they think], 'I'm so busy, but I can make it up to you.' "

But the responsibility for restraint at Christmas lies with the parent, she says. After all, it takes very little to make a child under 6 happy. "In fact, when younger kids get a lot, we encourage parents to whip the toys away and bring them out one by one because the kids get overwhelmed."

But what if your child uses the old "But everyone has one!" ploy?

Negotiate, Ms. Seefeldt says. For example, when Baltimore resident Helen Bianca's 16-year-old daughter asks for expensive items, Ms. Bianca tries a compromise. "If she wants $50 tennis shoes and I'm willing to go $25, she makes up the difference. It teaches values, I think."

On the other hand, sometimes it behooves parents to give in to their children's wishes. At certain ages, conformity plays an important part in a child's development, says Ms. Seefeldt. "At age 5 and then again at the high school level, being like everyone else is really important to children. Respect that need to be like others, but know there is room for negotiation."

For example, if you feel Barbie -- and all her accouterments -- are far too expensive, try a compromise: Buy the doll, but not the van or the sports car, and suggest the child build the car or house herself.

Advertising efforts aside, Christmas memories are often catalysts in the parental urge to give, give, give during the holidays.

"I'm in my 60s," says Ms. Seefeldt. As a child, "I wanted a Scarlett O'Hara doll and I didn't get one. I still remember all the other girls playing 'Gone With the Wind' and I couldn't play. Now I'm not sure this has affected me negatively, but I still remember it."

The memory has caused Ms. Seefeldt to advocate a spirit of compromise at Christmas. After all, she says, "You can buy one Scarlett O'Hara doll, and let your child play with the other children. Just don't buy the whole plantation."

And if the quest for the perfect present proves fruitless, says Ms. Cullison, who has been searching in vain for the 3-in-1 Tournament Table, console yourself with the thought of post-Christmas sales. "It came to me last Friday," she says. "I thought, 'This thing is $180. . . . This time next year this tournament table will be easy to get and it probably will be half the price.' "

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