Taming the Gimmes

Parents everywhere started bracing themselves for the onslaught of holiday advertising starting around Halloween and lasts for….forever. All of these advertisements trigger the “gimmes” in our kids without them even being aware of it. Not only do advertisements communicate powerful emotional messages about what it takes to be cool, “in,” or hip, they also trigger the “seeking system” in our kids brains.

Toy aisle that ignites the gimmes

The seeking brain

It turns out that our brains are designed to push us to seek out new things, making the search for novelty rewarding in and of itself. In other words, while I drive to the mall to get a new outfit, my brain’s seeking system is making me feel good. In fact, so good that it often exceeds the reward I feel when I put on the new outfit at home!

What does this look like for our kids? Have your daughters ever told you they were “dying” to get the latest toy? (Dying! This is serious business!) Yet one week after the toy is finally in their hands you find it buried under old clothes in the corner barely used and cast aside? This is part of your child’s seeking system at work. They are off to get the next prize.

This served us very well when we hunted our food for survival and it certainly continues to help us today. Heck, it is what helps us get out of bed in the morning! Fueled by our seeking system we make new discoveries and seek out innovation and change. However, the piles of barely used toys in the corner of our kids’ rooms represents the dark underbelly of the seeking brain.

Seeking out “stuff” doesn’t make our kids happy

As you might guess seeking out piles of “stuff” doesn’t actually make our kids happier. The quick dopamine hit they get on the search isn’t rewarding in the long haul. If we give in to the “gimmes” it doesn’t just drain the bank account, it also robs kids of the opportunity to practice self-discipline, kindness, and gratitude – all of which lead to sustained rewards lasting a lifetime.

My friend Jenny came up with a great way to teach her kids about the power of the seeking brain. When her boys would beg for something as they passed by the toy section Jenny would note it and remind them of the two week rule. The two week rule meant that they needed to wait a full two weeks before Jenny would even consider buying it for them. The best part? Many items fell off the boys’ radar within a couple of days. The boys quickly realized that lots of times it wasn’t about any particular item, what they were experiencing was merely a feeling of craving something new.

Of course the desire for some items stuck around and they talked through ways to save up for these things or put them on a holiday list. The system wasn’t perfect but it saved Jenny from lots of impulse buys and taught her boys a bit about their brains.

Taming the gimmes

No matter what your tradition, the holiday season can be a wonderful time to connect with family and friends – as long as your family isn’t overwhelmed by the “gimmes.” The onslaught of advertising during the holiday doesn’t help. Here are some tips for curbing materialism and maintaining focus on what matters during the holidays:

  • Set the tone. Start the holiday season with a family meeting. Brainstorm how each member of the family can save, share, and spend some of their resources for the holiday.
  • Tone it down. If you feel like gifts have gotten out of control, suggest that friends and family give more modest presents.
  • Limit screen time. The fewer commercials that children see, the less likely they are to hunger for new items.
  • Talk about the brain. Talk to your child about their “seeking brain” and have them visualize how they can resist cravings for “stuff” before they go to a store.
  • Take power out of advertising. Talk to your child about the power of advertising and take a look together at how advertisers try to trick you into thinking you need more stuff.
  • Expect giving. Expect and support your child in sharing with those in need.
  • Practice gratitude. Create traditions and rituals that encourage your kids to express gratitude for what they do have. Before meals or bedtimes are great times to have kids count their blessings.
  • Discuss needs vs. wants. Talk with you child about the difference between needs and wants. Have your child help pay for or work towards a special gift purchase.
  • Try one in, one out. If your house is filled with unused toys try this: For every new toy that comes into the house, pick one to donate.
  • Make gift. Try making homemade presents for family members.
  • Send thank you notes. Make sure your child sends thank-you messages for gifts.