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Dealing With The "Holiday Wants"

It's no surprise, given the gift-giving nature of the season, that kids gear up for receiving. But billions of dollars are now spent on targeting those desires. Here are some thoughts on ways to counteract some of that.

It's become a holiday tradition of its own: as the post-Thanksgiving parade of commercials begin, kids become especially insistent on what gifts they have to have. It's a frenzy that can make for parental frustration and pressure. 

It can be especially frustrating for parents who've tried "to create special holiday traditions that foster positive emotions like gratitude and altruism—traditions that would bring meaning, connection, and positive memories," says Christine Carter, a sociologist at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.

"I thought I was going to lose my mind," Carter wrote in an essay published this week on the center's website.

"My daughter was in the back of the car rattling off all the things she wanted for Christmas, excitedly, as though it were a done deal and she would soon be receiving everything she ever hoped for," Carter recalled. "And I was anxiously trying to do damage control: Santa only brings one toy ('Nah-ah, Mom, he brought Ella THREE last year!!'); Santa can’t bring live animals (she passionately wanted a live llama); if your grandparents get you Uggs instead of Payless knock-offs, you won’t get any other presents from them (economic logic lost on a seven-year-old)."

Carter, who writes a blog on parenting for the Greater Good Science Center, explored whether kids and adults alike are "wired to want." She said that getting the gift, or the cookie or the suddenly appealing cashmere sweater, promises immediate gratification with a hit of the powerful neurotransmitter dopamine released in our brains.

"Unfortunately, our brain doesn’t distinguish between rewards that actually will make us happier and the things that won’t," Carter said. But it's possible to help children learn to recognize that advertisers are trying to make kids and their parents buy more and more things, she said.

"So when our kids seem greedy or materialistic at this time of year, it doesn’t mean that we’ve failed to instill good values in them, or that they are spoiled and bratty," Carter said. "It means that they are human, and that they are under the siege of a marketing-induced dopamine rush.

"This is an important lesson for our kids to learn! Here’s how we can help: We can teach them to recognize what makes them want, want, want. We can teach them to realize when they are being manipulated by advertisers."

Carter's full essay can be read here.

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