A few months ago I was watching public TV’s annual drive to raise money. One of the primary offers for your pledge was a video of the “Doo Wop” music of the ‘50s and early ‘60s. In addition to playing many of my favorite songs they showed old media news clips referring to this as “the devil’s music”, wanting it banned because of the harm it was doing to the teenagers. As part of that generation I recall it as a very superficial time when most of us did what we were told and only minimally challenged prevailing expectations. That led me to think about the next generation, the Boomers, who rioted, challenged authority, used drugs heavily, and turned sex into a recreational activity. By now you may be wondering what this has to do with holiday gifts! Bear with me.
It is a time-honored tradition for each generation of teens to engage in some new set of activities that is perceived as dangerous to their development and to blame contemporary social influences on individual tragedies that take place during those years. In the psychologizing of America we have come to extend this concept of social influence all the way back to prenatal experience! The net result is that parents agonize even more over every move they make and how it might harm their children. If your daughter is allowed to buy a Britney Spears’ doll you are accused of increasing the likelihood that she will either become oversexed or develop an eating disorder. If you buy your son a violent video game you are similarly warned that you are increasing the likelihood he will commit a violent crime. Oh if life were only so simple.
Eating disorders are a serious concern in our society as is male violence. But these are complex problems and our ability to predict which child develops one of these problems is virtually nil. For decades millions of young girls have spent endless hours playing with Barbie dolls and boys have been exposed to ever-increasing violence in all forms of the media. While we are genuinely concerned about the extent of eating disorders and violence in our society, the facts are that the vast majority of women do not develop an eating disorder and the vast majority of men do not commit violent crimes. The actions of individuals are a complex playing out of the interaction of temperament, neurochemistry, personal experience, and social influence. Furthermore, significant problems during childhood and adolescent years do not mean doom for one’s adult life. We are extraordinarily resilient creatures. Need I point out that the seemingly out-of-control behavior by our youth from the mid-‘60s to the mid-‘70s spawned a generation of free thinkers. They created an unparalleled era of prosperity based mostly on an endless creation of self-owned businesses combined with exceptional gains in medicine and science that has also included dramatic changes in gender roles and a new melting-pot society. That’s you I’m talking about – the majority of today’s parents.
So when you go to buy your child some holiday presents I would urge you to be less influenced by the current doomsayers and more influenced by your own values. Too many parents have become confused and overwhelmed by all the advice that people like me send streaming forth. It’s a challenge to separate out what really matters. For a long time I have urged parents to believe that what really matters is to have a close bond with their children by learning how to enjoy them and see their strengths despite how challenging that is with certain children. In addition I urge parents to know what they believe in and provide some consistency for their children by being willing to take the heat for standing behind their values. Your daughter can own a Spears’ doll but if you feel the clothes she wants to wear are too provocative, say no. You may find certain video games cross a line of acceptability because of excessive violence or the values expressed (e.g., bigotry). Say no.
If these concepts resonate with you then it follows that you should buy gifts that you find acceptable for your children and that will be a part of a holiday experience that has personal meaning for the family rather than a temporary material meaning. As adults, few remember their childhood holiday gifts. Warm holiday memories usually consist of the sense of traditions that include sights and sounds and smells that are associated with a sense of family closeness. If you can achieve that then you are having meaningful holidays. Furthermore, that closeness is the strongest factor in increasing the likelihood that your children will ultimately make healthy decisions about their lives.