Despite recession, parents vow to fill kids' Christmas stockings

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 23, 2009

With the tough times and a son in college, Anthony Jackson says he cannot possibly afford the kind of Christmas his family once had, with gifts piled high in the den of his Petworth home. But then again, he can't imagine disappointing his youngest children, either.

"I'm looking at basics: shoes, underclothes, T-shirts," said his wife, Elaine, as they strolled around the Mall at Prince Georges.

Not Jackson. He was thinking electronics. One $170 PSP game system for his youngest son. One $170 Nintendo DSi system for his daughter. "But one game each," he said, noting that that's much less than in the flush days, when he might have bought four or five.

So go the inevitable compromises and conflicts of the holiday as many parents strive to insulate their children from the fallout of the worst recession in decades.

"You want to give your children things; you want your children to be happy, even if you have to pay the price later," said Jackson, a government worker and father of four, who remembers when his paycheck seemed to stretch further and when fewer friends and neighbors were hurting financially.

In these final shopping days, many parents are reconciling their practical concerns with a deep desire to see delight in their children's faces Christmas morning. Spending on gifts is down, but that does not always mean children will feel the difference.

"In hard times, parents try even harder," said Steven Mintz, a history professor at Columbia University who studies childhood. He said that the impulse to shield children from family financial difficulties goes back many generations. "During the Great Depression, parents would do anything to keep their kids from feeling the hardship," he said.

This bears out in what Marshal Cohen, the chief retail analyst for NPD Group, a market research firm, sees happening in stores. Early indicators show that toys are faring a little better than most retail categories, he said, and in NPD's surveys, "parents absolutely, yes, have said that, yes, they will forgo or significantly reduce purchasing for the significant other in the family to make sure the kids do not get cutbacks."

'The kids come first'

This includes Kimberly Simmons-Griffin, 39, a Mount Rainier contract manager who made spending cuts, but not for her children. Her teen will get her first "real" purse, a $200 Coach bag. Her 4-year-old twins will get their toys, most of them costing less than $30: Transformers and trucks for one, doll babies and princess dress-up clothes for the other.

"The shopping I usually do for me, I cut back on that," she said. "Everything went to the kids this year. . . . You don't want your kids to suffer. These burdens are ours, not our children's."

Pamela Logan, 61, who lives in Southeast Washington, emerged from a Target store with gifts for her four grandchildren: a Candy Land game, slippers, a bathrobe. Her two grown children will get less this year, she said, because "the kids come first."

In many families, children have learned a little -- or a lot -- about the country's economic woes, including the housing bust and high unemployment rate. But many parents hope to make the holiday season a time apart from these difficult truths.

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