The Christmas Dilemma: How Much of a Kid’s Wish List Should Parents Oblige?

A conversation with the sociologist Allison Pugh, who studies why children want what they want and how moms and dads navigate those desires

Paul Hackett / Reuters

A little more than a decade ago, the sociologist Allison Pugh spent three years studying parents and children at three elementary schools—one low-income public, one affluent public, and one private—in Oakland, California. Pugh wanted to understand what it is that kids want, why they want those things, and how parents decide whether to fulfill their kids’ wishes.

I sat with kids in classrooms and after-school programs, while they did homework and biked and knitted and played games,” Pugh says. “I tied shoes and turned jump ropes and caught footballs. I was with them while they sold lemonade and bought birthday presents, when they went to the library and to parades.” In addition, Pugh interviewed 54 of the children’s parents. Her research was published as a book, Longing and Belonging: Parents, Children, and Consumer Culture, in 2009.

I spoke with Pugh about her work recently, and an edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Rebecca J. Rosen: What is it that parents are struggling with at this time of year?

Allison Pugh: Parents want Christmas or Hannukah or other holidays to be ones of joy. They want the magical moment that comes from seeing your child very well and figuring out what would make them really excited, and then actually meeting that desire.

But these holidays can pose a big dilemma to parents, one that crystallizes an ongoing, larger dilemma in parenting. That dilemma is how much you want your child to be happy—meeting what you think are their desires—balanced against the worry that you’ll make your kids materialistic or spoiled and not grateful for what they have.

Rosen: Many parents fear failing to meet their kids’ desires. Are those fears justified?

Pugh: In my research I watched kids in their social worlds, and that I think gave me some insight into how much kids really want something, and what happens when they do or don't get it. I came away from three years of observing kids in their natural habitat convinced that momentary deprivation of the kind that almost every child is going to experience at one time or another is actually not a bad thing for children. They manage.

You have to understand here my perspective is not about, "Oh, when we were young, in the 1940s, kids just played with jacks." It's not about nostalgia for the past. I think there's a lot of judgment in this space about kids, that they're so materialistic and so on. I went in pretty open-minded and I found that kids are pretty remarkable in how they respond to not having the thing that's on everybody's wish-list this year.

Kids use toys and commercial goods and experiences to be able to talk to each other. They use them like a language. I came to see that language as fairly essential for their social citizenship. So on the one hand I'm elevating the role of toys and stuff: I'm saying it’s not just materialism, it's not just greed—it's about being able to talk to each other and to be able to stand there and say, “I am a full citizen of this social world.” Talking about toys and commercial experiences like movies and trips or whatever are things that kids talk about. So they are important and we have to recognize that.

Rosen: It’s part of how they connect socially.

Pugh: Right. But at the same time I also watched kids not have the thing that everyone was talking about or not have experienced something, and I came away really impressed with how they handled those moments. Kids had a variety of different, creative strategies they would use, and they were very effective. Often, they basically learned whatever they could about the coveted object and the thing that everyone was talking about, the language of the moment. And even if their parents were holding the line on that particular item or experience, they would be able to join in the conversation, to dive in that pool, based on their knowledge.

So they wouldn't just be silent, which could be conceived of as the worst thing—if you can't even talk. They would then go in and be like, "Level 22 is the hardest" and they would be able to talk about it. That capacity to be able to become fluent in a language that you don't learn at home, that was pretty impressive to me. I saw it all the time, every day, from many different children.

Rosen: How do parents’ experiences of this dilemma vary by class?

Pugh: I found that each set of parents—parents who were quite affluent and those who were quite low-income—was responding to the "other" that they were trying not to be. For affluent parents, they're trying their best not to be the materialist people they know, whether that's their neighbor, or their whatever: “We are not like them.”

And so what do they do? They practice what I came to consider “symbolic deprivation.” The parents would say, "Oh, we don't buy X … We don't buy this toy or piece of equipment that everyone else has because we're not like that." And the item in question was always a very potent symbolic thing—an electronic game that everyone has. And yet, then you would go into the kid's bedroom, like I did, and the child would have the full complement of toys and equipment that is basic to a middle-class childhood. It would just be this powerful symbolic thing that the parents were withholding, in part to try to tell that story to themselves and to me that they weren't like “them.”

For the low-income families, the "other" that they were trying not to be were parents that could not adequately provide for their children. So they practiced what I considered “symbolic indulgence.” They would pick very powerful items symbolically for the child and for themselves that would be like, "See, we're doing all right. That child has an X." And that X might be a particular electronic item or an Easy-Bake Oven or whatever—something that the child or the parent is holding out to say "We're good parents because of this." But when you go in the child's bedroom they might be missing many of the items that middle-class parents consider basic—blocks, or a bicycle, or things that parents in a different economic strata would consider it a problem not to have.

Both parents are holding out these buying practices as testaments to their good parenting and in response to the criticisms they feel they are vulnerable to.

Rosen: I feel like the bigger thing you're talking about is every family’s effort to forge its own mini-culture in the context of the broader culture.

Pugh: That's exactly right. In fact, that really captures everything about how to do parenting well. You're describing Halloween, you're describing school choice, you're describing when they go to bed, when you have dinner, who does homework, what you let her wear, how far you let them walk.

Every decision that parents make, they're straddling these messages coming from outside and their own style that they're trying to achieve. That can be very difficult. That's why in my book I ask, what are the potential solutions here? One is to make difference safe. One is to get rid of difference to the extent possible, so that means getting together with your friends and saying “Let’s put a moratorium on really out-of-hand gift bags.” Let's together say, “No more than $5 per gift bag,” and establishing a kind of culture of similarity. Some schools are trying to do that—that's what they're doing with uniforms. In Waldorf schools they say no outside brands. They're really trying to make a culture of sameness.

I support that on some level. They're doing their best there, but it doesn't address the kind of core anxiety at the base which is about difference, and since we are all different another approach is to acknowledge difference and make difference audible and explicable and part of the conversation. That's harder to do, but also potentially more powerful, certainly for the few families that I found that were actually willing to say no on a regular basis to their children. They had this articulated difference, often they were immigrant families, not always, but immigration often lets you have that narrative, "Oh, we're not like them."

Rosen: I think another thing that can serve that purpose is religion. Like if you're from a religious minority or if you're very seriously religious in a secular culture, then it's easy to point to the broader culture and say, “That’s not us.”

Pugh: I cling to the hope that even non-immigrant and not hyper-religious families can still articulate a vision for what we are like in this house. Because that, to me, is the only path to being able to actively parent as opposed to being subject to the whims of what corporate America wants you to do.