- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 12, 2000

Marsha and Garry Bourke, like most parents, want to make their children happy. They would like their sons, 4-year-old Jared and 10-month-old Julian, to experience the anticipation and excitement they felt years ago as children during the holidays.

The Bourkes, who live in Clinton, know that for the young, much of the magic of Christmas emanates from the pile of gifts under the Christmas tree, and they don't plan to disappoint. As residents of the land of plenty, however, they are considering where to draw the line between fulfilling their children's dreams and overindulging their youngsters.

"Being a 4-year-old, Jared wants everything he sees," says Mr. Bourke, a patrol officer with the U.S. Park Police. "We tell him, 'You have so many things more than lots of people.' "

"When we go to the toy store, we know when we are going overboard," says Mrs. Bourke, an office manager for a Lanham computer company. "We don't say three toys and that's it but our first and foremost thought is not to give them everything they might want, because that is not how real life is. We try to coordinate the consistency of real life and this Christmas festivity."

Toys galore

Actually, real life for many American children means a sleighload of stuff. Toy sales in 1999 totaled $23 billion and the figures are expected to rise this year, says Diane Cardinale, a spokeswoman for Toy Manufacturers of America Inc.

Families spend an average of $350 per child each year on toys. Fifty-three percent of that spending occurs during the holidays, Ms. Cardinale says.

"This is one of the only times of year we honor children, and toys are symbols of this," says Cindy Dell Clark, an assistant professor of human development, from her office on the Penn State Delaware County campus. "By contrast, materialistic values are really pushed out of proportion."

Perhaps purchasing estimates speak to this focused consumerism. On average, American adults this holiday season will spend $1,161 on gifts, an 8 percent increase over last year's figures, says Tom Sclafani of the American Express Retail Index. Scrooges will be in the minority. "Eighty percent of adults will purchase toys as gifts for children this year, as compared with 77 percent last year," he says.

Diane Ehrensaft, a developmental psychologist in Berkeley, Calif., has studied what she terms "the crisis of American parenthood" for 15 years. She is author of "Spoiling Childhood: How Well-Meaning Parents Are Giving Children Too Much But Not What They Need." Ms. Ehrensaft says today's popular culture dictates that children be gratified totally and that is a big mistake.

"The main problem in overindulging is that we deny our kids the ability to want and wait for something, which is an important part of childhood," she says. "It relates to play, creativity and self-sufficiency."

She explains: "Play is about creating something from nothing; creativity is about imagining something that is not there; and self-sufficiency is to be able to feel the empty spot starting from there, the child says, 'What should I do with myself?' and goes inside him or herself to get the answer."

Ms. Ehrensaft says she believes indulgence is one form of what she terms "parenting by guilt."

"Parents feel guilty for three main reasons. One, they're not there; two, they cannot protect their children from an unsafe world; and three, when they are there, they are preoccupied."

Ms. Ehrensaft recommends that parents look inward to understand the dynamics behind their personal approach to gift giving. "Ask yourself who you are really doing it for," she advises.

Arlington parent Bonnie Seklecki says she is very conscious of indulgence at Christmastime. Although Mrs. Seklecki and her husband, Mark, the political affairs director at a health care association, attempt to limit the number of gifts they purchase for Emily, 10, and Evan, 7, she says, "We still go overboard. I'm honest enough to say that."

The couple usually buy each child one significant gift one year the youngsters received in-line skates, for example and a variety of smaller ones, including books.

"I have in my mind a spending limit," says Mrs. Seklecki, a contract manager for an environmental consultant. In choosing gifts, "I use my own judgment I don't get them certain items just because they ask for them. For example, I am not getting Evan a drum set."

'Entitlement is bad'

"How much is too much is really a relative issue," says Robert Billingham, a professor of human development and family studies at Indiana University and the father of four children, ages 7 to 18. "It is not a question of number. If the child not only expects a lot of toys, but says, 'If I don't get that certain toy, my Christmas is ruined,' then that's too much."

Warning bells should ring in the ears of parents if they realize their child believes he or she is entitled to more, more, more. "Entitlement is bad," Mr. Billingham says. "It won't be very many years until the child will say, 'I am entitled to my inheritance.' "

Rachel Deutsch of Arlington says she and her husband, Roy Van Buskirk, a senior vice president of sales at MediaCenters.com, plan to raise their two children to appreciate what they receive.

"We have the means to get them what they need, but we just don't want them to demand and expect things," says Ms. Deutsch, creative director and principal at EVD Advertising in Falls Church.

Ms. Deutsch says she and her husband helped Hannah, 3, make a list of the items she would like to receive as holiday gifts. "We told her she will get some not all of them if she is good."

This year, Hannah's brother, Max, 21 months, will receive a train set; Hannah will receive a bike.

"They'll also get little things clothing they need, stocking stuffers," Ms. Deutsch says. "That's about it, because our family gets them so much that I don't want to get them any more."

Ms. Deutsch continues: "We tell Hannah that not everyone is as lucky as she is. We tell her that you need to be thankful. You get presents because you worked for them or because they made someone else happy, not just because they plopped down into your lap."

Jean Lewis of Fulton, Md., admits she and her husband, Warren, a manager in the federal government, may overindulge their 10-year-old son, Aaron, but says they style their giving as a reward.

At Christmastime, "We generally do go hog wild," says Ms. Lewis, also a federal government employee, "but basically, we try to get a balance of where he is during the year as far as how he's doing in school and at home in terms of being respectful and himself being giving. He really works hard at everything he does. We instill that in order to have what you want, you have to work hard."

In addition, the family incorporates concern for others into daily life in word and deed via church and school activities, Ms. Lewis says.

Mr. Billingham recommends that families start teaching this empathy lesson early: "Right after birth," he says. "If the family can get into a pattern, the child grows up into a pattern."

In the Bourke household, doing for others is a way of life. The couple spend a significant amount of their time enmeshed in various church ministries and community activities, frequently with their children in tow.

"I'm definitely bringing these boys up the way they should go," explains Mrs. Bourke, a member of the First Baptist Church of Glenarden. "Because I go to church and hear the Word, I am more aware of my surroundings and people in need."

Giving to others

"We're really trying to raise our children in knowing what Christmas is all about and that it's not just about gifts," Mrs. Bourke says.

Mrs. Seklecki says she and her husband struggle with this issue as well.

"It is hard to help your kids not to be materialistic," she says. "Young kids are so impressionable; they get the wrong idea of what it's all about."

Part of their solution, Mrs. Seklecki says, is to ask the children to choose or make gifts for others, including charitable organizations.

Mr. Billingham concurs. "This is the time of year when people give and receive," he says. "It's very, very important that children understand the reason behind the season. If they just have Santa without the Christ, parents have to work even harder to put it into a social context."

He concludes: "Tell your child that there are people who don't have the advantages that we have we have so much that we can share with these families also."

What money can't buy

"There is the old adage that you should give your children time, not things, and that is true," says Ms. Clark of Penn State. "What they really treasure are times when you are just there and tuned in to them and not too stressed out to experience them."

She emphasizes, however, that there is no harm in buying children gifts. In fact, "Sometimes a well-chosen toy can send a message to the child of how much you understand them you recognize in them that they would really love it."

She continues, "But don't allow gifts to substitute for time, affection and true attempts to understand the child. If you buy them Candyland, play Candyland with them. If you buy them a bike, don't take five months to assemble it."

Ms. Ehrenfeld reiterates her cautions against indulging for the sake of indulging.

"I hear, 'But I can afford it' all the time," she says. "But the answer to that is, even if you can afford it, you shouldn't do it."

Instead, she suggests parents tell their children to make a wish list. "Then don't get them everything on it. When they don't get it, they can get it for their birthday or work for it or maybe never get it at all," she says.

Enough of a good thing

Ana Lopez lives with her two sons, Carlos, 13, and Adiel, 2, in a two-bedroom Arlington apartment. A single mother, she works as a baby sitter and cleans houses on the side to support her children.

This year, the Lopez family will travel to their homeland of El Salvador for Christmas, a trip for which Ms. Lopez has been saving all year. That, she explains, will be the family's real celebration.

Anyway, she says, "Carlos already has his Christmas present a scooter. And I will buy Adiel a remote-control car. My friends and family give a lot of presents to the kids. Not big presents, but so it looks like they have a lot."

Sometimes, she says, "They get stuff from the Salvation Army. This year only Adiel will, though, because Carlos is too old."

Last year her employer gave Ms. Lopez a generous Christmas bonus. She says she spent the money well.

"I bought my children stuff they really needed. When I buy stuff, I look for things for me and my kids I really need not just toys, because toys you can find anytime. Christmas is a big day, but if you don't have a lot of money then, you have to wait until you have it."

Ms. Lopez says she believes her children receive just enough at Christmas.

"I don't worry about them getting spoiled, because they are not like 'gimme, gimme, gimme,' " she says. "If they get a lot, they are happy. If they don't get a lot, they don't care."

Read the Family Times next Tuesday to learn how area families incorporate volunteering into their lives.

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