The Washington Post

What drives the urge to spoil?

One day it manifests itself by hauling clunky unloved old toys from my girls’ toy box into storage bags and throwing them in the trunk of my car, and the next day suggesting we all go Christmas shopping at a local toy emporium where I double and triple my intended gift allotment.

For some reason, I view that ugly dollhouse with a gazillion pieces (a mini butter dish, seriously?) as consumerist trash, but see a shiny new baby doll (with its own diaper and bottle!) that my youngest momentarily takes an interest in and think it is The Best Thing Ever.

Just this weekend, my trunk had the old toys, intended for a charity drop-off, shoved next to two large bags of wrapped toys. If anyone ever set out to make a negative ad about my parenting values, right there would be proof of my flip-flopping.

What is it about this season that pushes people like me to spend against better judgment, accumulate despite an utter lack of space, and embrace excess even as I strive to model economy?

Is it marketers, retailers, my own kids’ manipulations?

Kit Yarrow, an expert on consumer psychology who writes Psychology Today’s blog “The Why Behind the Buy,” said it may be all those things, and something else too: parents’ own rationalizations.

“Every parent has a different reason for succumbing to the urge to over-gift (a.k.a spoil) their kids,” Yarrow wrote to me in an e-mail exchange we had on the subject.

“And ‘spoil’ it does, by the way. That word isn’t used much today, but from a psychological point of view, it says it all: children under appreciate what they have when they have too much and kids grow up to be hard-to-please, unhappy adults when they’re given too much as kids.”

Yarrow proceeded to lay out the top reasons well-meaning parents fall into the spoiling trap:

1. “They don’t want their kid to be the only one in their community that’s given ‘less.’ It only takes a few “bad” parents to raise the bar for everyone.”

2. “Hard working parents with long hours sometimes feel guilty about not spending more time with their kids and therefore give them stuff. The solution is not more time by the way; it’s less guilt. Happy parents are good parents.”

3. “Online, connected kids are more apt to use ‘things’ to connect with other kids and the pressure to get the right clothes, the right technology, the right stuff is intense. Parents sense this and give in because it seems so urgent.”

4. “Parents value their kid’s friendship — sometimes more than their role as parent. It therefore hurts more to disappoint and the urge to protect and instill values is lessened.”

5. “There is less hierarchical distance between parents and kids today and so it’s more likely that parents will spend more on their (more equal) kids than previous generations of parents.”

Are you finding yourself over-buying this season? How do you rein in the impulse?

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