I admit it: When Zip was little, I was an indulgent momma. Almost every trip to the store resulted in some little purchase for my baby. It wasn’t necessarily anything he asked for and rarely was it something he actually needed, but as a new mom I found a lot of joy in bringing home a little something new for my boy, be it a cute outfit, a little rattle, or a new board book.
But somewhere along the way, when he was three or so, I realized my habit had the potential to become a problem. Partly because I now had two little ones and buying treats for two was (obviously) twice as expensive. But also because Zip was now old enough to understand what I was doing and he was starting to expect things. We needed to change course, fast.
Over the past few years we have implemented a number of different strategies that, taken together, have helped to keep the gimmes in check. Our intention is to teach the boys to be thoughtful about what they ask for and to value what they have. And of course we’re hoping to avoid the very unpleasant toy aisle meltdowns.
1. Start an allowance.
Families vary greatly in just how they go about setting up allowance. Regardless of whether you make it an entitlement (allowance received no matter what), something to earn for everyday responsibilities, or give extra cash for chores above and beyond what is expected, an allowance provides children the opportunity to save up for things that they want. When kids are spending their own money, they may be more selective about what they want and value it more once they have it. And it means that when your child says she wants something you can reply, “Do you have enough money for it?”
My boys each earn 50 cents each week (yep, just 50 cents) for a handful of basic chores. To help them gauge just how badly they want something, I always ask if they are willing to spend their own money on it.
2. Create expectations in advance.
Before going somewhere that your child might spot something he wants – whether it be a store or a street festival or whatever – let him know ahead of time whether you will buy anything. Kids do much better if you can tell them before they ask, “We aren’t going to be buying anything today.” There may be some arguing at first, but it is critical to stick to your word – otherwise “no buying today” won’t hold any weight the next time around. And if you aren’t buying, you can use strategy #3.
3. Create a space to “hold onto” wants.
I keep a list on my phone of things that the boys would like. When Bee runs errands with me, I remind him beforehand that we aren’t buying any toys, but that we can make a note of anything special that he sees. He loves to visit the toy aisle, so we use my phone to take pictures of any toys that interest him. Having a place to “put” his wish seems to help him accept that he can’t have it right now. (I’ll admit this works best when a holiday or birthday is approaching.)
This is also a great tool for helping kids delay gratification and prioritize what they want. I generally don’t let Zip spend his allowance on something the same day he decides he wants it. I encourage him to put it on his list and come back to it later. When he looks back at his list, he often realizes there are other things he would rather save up for and spend his hard-earned money on.
4. Limit holiday and birthday wishlists.
The boys’ “want list” (from #3) can get long. And that is fine. It is just a space to keep track of things they might like. I don’t care if there are 100 things on that list! But when it comes time to make birthday or holiday requests, we do set a limit, typically 3-5 wishes. This encourages the boys to really think about what they want the most and to realize not all wants are created equal. It also keeps their expectations realistic. I’ve been amazed that the last couple of years Zip has actually kept his wishlist even shorter than what we allow – he focuses in on what he really, truly wants. (Wish list for 8th birthday: A turtle, a bobcat skull, and a Gator Boys t-shirt.)
5. Model restraint.
Kids are always watching us, and we can show them through our own behavior that we don’t need (or get) everything we want. Resources are limited. When the boys are running errands with me, I’ll often “talk out loud” about what I am choosing to buy or not to buy, saying things like, “I would really love to get this yummy lotion, but I’m going to wait. I’m choosing to buy the things we really need today. I’ll put this lotion on my wishlist for later.” Sometimes I also explain that if we spend money on x, y, z today, it will take us much longer to save up for something else, like a special family vacation!
6. Give experiences, not things.
Celebrate special occasions by doing something as a family, rather than by giving material things. Spoil your child with attention – hugs, conversation, a card game, a walk – instead of toys.
The “downside” of this: Your child’s gimmes may morph from asking for things to asking to go places or do particular activities. This is actually the case in our house – the boys are always asking to go hiking or to the park or fishing or something that requires effort and time on our part. Which is fine, but we can only do so much! So, just like with toys, we create lists – a brainstorm of ideas for what we could do on our next outing.
7. Limit exposure to commercials and catalogs.
Thanks to DVR, my kids went a loooong time without ever seeing a commercial. So long that when Zip saw his very first commercial, for toothpaste, he was totally dazzled by it and started reciting all of the reasons it was the best toothpaste in the world and we must.buy.it.now. Advertisements are designed to convince us that we need what they are selling and kids are easily convinced. If you are trying to keep the gimmes in check, limit exposure to tv commercials (try recorded programmes or DVDs) and throw away the toy catalogs as soon as they arrive. But at the same time, let’s teach our kids to be wise consumers of advertisements by helping them understand that the role of ads is to make things look more amazing than they are and convince us to buy it.
It is important to remember that wanting things is totally natural. The goal isn’t to eliminate kids’ wanting, but to avoid a sense of entitlement and instead help kids develop the ability to delay gratification, make wise choices, and appreciate what they have. My boys still want things – naturally – but the strategies above have gone a long way toward keeping the gimmes in check. I hope that you’ll find these ideas helpful too!