Christmas shopping as substance abuse

Posted: November 25, 2011

By Jennifer Coburn

This holiday season, let's not overstuff ourselves with toys, trinkets, and gifts. The gluttony of consumerism adversely affects our health and our children's health.

The average American spends more than $1,000 during the holiday season, according to Buy Nothing Christmas, an organization that advocates simplifying the holiday. Although the United States represents only 4.5 percent of the world's population, we consume 40 percent of its toys. The typical first grader is able to recognize 200 brands and acquires 70 new toys a year.

Those toys may be harming your child. In Born to Buy, one of the most comprehensive analyses of consumerism in kids, professor Juliet Schor explains that the more kids buy into the commercial culture, the more likely they are to suffer from depression, anxiety, headaches, stomachaches, and boredom. Adolescents with more materialistic values, meanwhile, are more likely to engage in risky behavior, such as smoking, drinking, and illegal drug use. They are also more likely to suffer from personality disorders such as narcissism, separation anxiety, paranoia, and attention deficit disorder.

Lavishing our children with gifts deprives them of something far more valuable: shared time and experiences. In our overscheduled lives, we are often too busy or tired to do a family art project, play a board game, or bake cookies. I can't remember ever roasting chestnuts on an open fire, but it's always sounded like a lovely idea. Most families say that what they need more of is time - not stuff. And getting in and out of shopping centers steals your time.

An overabundance of holiday gifts offers a short-term payoff, but the long-term consequences are high. Mary Bellis Waller, the author of Crack-Affected Children, likens materialism to cocaine addiction. Buying stuff stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain, which creates a temporary high, but ultimately leaves one unsatisfied. The bottom line is that substance abuse is substance abuse.

Not surprisingly, kids who are overindulged materially tend to have the worst relationships with their parents. Money can't buy love, but it sure seems to finance some serious familial discord.

I don't advocate doing away with all holiday gift-giving. A few thoughtful gifts can add a lot to a child's holiday. But we need to redefine giving by shopping less and doing more. Our kids will remember the bread-baking, the snowball fights, and the family time long after they've tired of this year's must-have gadget.

Presents are part of the holiday experience, but they have come to eclipse the greater meaning of the season. Whether it is Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or winter solstice, the season offers us all a period to reflect on what makes life beautiful and meaningful. And that usually doesn't come in wrapping paper.

Jennifer Coburn is the author of four novels. She wrote this for Progressive Media Project, and it was distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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