Parent-to-Parent: Have-Nots Have It Better

Just because your child’s friends have the latest must-have toy doesn’t mean they need it too.

Curing the ‘I Gotta Have It’ Syndrome

Apologies if the subtitle of this feature seems misleading—because there is no cure for the ‘I gotta have it’ syndrome. Kids will be kids, and kids are human. Materialism is practically hard-wired into us, and a consumerist culture that becomes more pervasive with every passing decade certainly isn’t helping matters.

The good news is that you can exert a remarkable amount of control over cases of the ‘gotta have its.’ You are, after all, the parent, the single-most important authority figure for your children. You are a role model, an educator and a guide all rolled into one loving package. And it’s a combination of love, patience, common-sense and benevolent self-interest (yours, as well as theirs) that will help you teach your kids that less can indeed be more.

Communication is your top tool. Sure, you can order your kids around—or at least, you can try to—but authoritative foot-planting only gets you so far. Kids do respect boundaries, no matter how much they might protest when a line is being drawn. But true respect comes from understanding, and understanding is a simple matter of communication.

Go Beyond ‘Because I Said So’

Kari Norman, a Toronto mother of three under-10 kids and expecting a fourth, offers a grocery-shopping example of mitigating the ‘I gotta have its’ with a polite explanation: When her charming trio demanded super-sugary Lucky Charms for breakfast cereal, she showed them the “nutritional content” on the side of the box. The kids might not have been happy about the decision, but Kari is confident that deep-down, they understood that the request denial came with good reason.

Michelle Butler Hallett of St. John’s, NL, a mother of one tween and one under-10 kid, reminds us that communicating ‘No’ can be, for lack of a better term, ‘fun.’ She has been known to sing the chorus to The Rolling Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ to her children during in-store sulks. She also points to the value of education in terms of the moderation process, saying that in the end, it’s really a matter of what individual parents value and want to encourage in their children.

“Is one, as a parent, more concerned with a child developing perseverance, patience, independence and compassion, or is one more concerned as a parent with a child also keeping up with the Joneses?” Put it that way, and the answer is obvious.

Allow Yourself an Ally

As far as education goes, math can serve as a great ally. Allowances might be old-fashioned, but they’re still around for a reason: they work. Having an allowance not only helps to teach young children the basics of addition and subtraction, it helps teach them to save money, as well as allocate their limited income towards the things they want the most. Better yet, giving children an allowance gives them a certain amount of control over their lives—something they desperately crave. More, in fact, than they crave the ‘gotta have it’ item.

But Céline Wilson, a Chelsea, QC, mother of two under-10 kids, mentions one potential pitfall of their allowance situation, which has a ‘work for your dollar’ ethic: Daughter number two, six years old, chooses to watch her sister, eight years old, clean up their mess, rather than help and get an allowance.

As with most parenting challenges, at the root of any ‘I gotta have it’ situation is the parent’s ability to say ‘No’ when it matters most. Marcus Tamm a Toronto father of two under-five kids, recommends the 2007 book NO: Why Kids—of All Ages—Need to Hear It and Ways Parents Can Say It, by Dave Walsh, PhD.

Walsh, part of a Minneapolis-based foundation called National Institute on Media and the Family, is by no means a party pooper: his core argument involves enlightening parents as to how they can control the exposure their children get to media sources that may be influencing them in ways counter to parents’ own efforts.

Do You Have the ‘Gotta-Have-Its?’

As for his own household, Marcus says that his elder son often says that he wants each thing shown on TV commercials. “He also points at the ads in comics and says he needs one of each kind.”

The Tamms’ solution: “We mostly ignore it and he seemingly always forgets about the toy at the end of the commercial or when he turns the page.”

Alison Mercer (Toronto, Ont.), a mother of two under-six kids, tells a similar story of her junior-kindergarten son expressing ‘need’ for a particular toy when in the schoolyard—as other kids had one—but never actually using it at home, where it “soon escaped into that secret place where all of the kids’ mismatched socks, and my sunglasses, have disappeared into.”

Sometimes it’s a matter of ignoring the bad influences rather than the kids’ pleas. “Advertisers spend a fortune trying to give the ‘I gotta have it’ theme to children,” says Sheila Smail, a mother of two teens in Ottawa, ON. She recommends parents also look into themselves to identify the very syndrome they are trying to curb in their kids.

“Read up on anti-consumerism; learn about what production and consumption is doing to the environment. Think about all the garbage that is being created—highly toxic garbage at that—when everyone simply must replace their old TV with a new flat screen.”

Andrew Wilson, husband of Céline, puts it bluntly: “Turn off the TV. You’ll be amazed.”