Keep Gift-Giving Simple This Season

Controversy over a Toys R Us commercial inspires giving memories instead of presents this holiday season.


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When I was a kid, of the most memorable Christmas gifts I ever received was a pair of green metal stilts. I was eight or nine, and I raced out to the front yard to wobble around like a lanky, half-drunk circus clown. 

The next year, my siblings and I got a trip to Hawaii, presented to us in plain, mysterious envelopes—letters informing us of our impending journey. It seemed impossible, and thrilling, that a trip across the ocean could be contained in a single piece of paper.

Another Christmas my mother gave me a handmade wooden keepsake box with a tiny lock and key for securing important private possessions, such as diaries and tubes of cherry Chapstick. I don’t think I was grown up enough to truly appreciate the box, my initials engraved in script on a brass plate on top, until it was lost in a move many years later.

In all my childhood Christmases, these are the gifts I coveted most. What will my children remember from their childhood holidays? I wonder about this now that the snow has started flying, the soft rock radio stations have switched to 24/7 Christmas carols, city workers are stringing up lights on the Plaza, and Black Friday looms larger than Thanksgiving.

And I also wonder about this after watching the disturbing commercial launched by Toys R Us launched late last month. In what’s shaping up to be the most notorious ad of the holiday season, a bus full of eye-rolling school children bound for a “boring” nature field trip go wild when their chaperone (a man dressed as a park ranger) tells them they’re actually going to Toys R Us for a free shopping spree. Once at the store, the kids—who aren’t actors but are real school kids from New York chapters of Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Boys and Girls Clubs—go haywire, practically weeping with happiness over stuffed animals, weirdly inappropriate makeup kits, and, even scarier, a giant plastic gun.

The minute-long spot has riled up environmental and education groups for its blatantly anti-nature, anti-learning, pro-consumerism message. The North American Association for Environmental Education issued an open letter to Toys R Us, stating, “We can’t imagine that your intended takeaway when developing the spot, was that kids—particularly those from less privilege—should value consumerism over education and connecting with the natural world.”

Credo Mobilize has issued a petition, with more than 19,000 signatures to date, to pull the ad. And individuals and organizations around the country are creating their own video responses, such as this one from the Santa Fe Watershed Association:

And this one called “Buying Toys is Getting Old. Mother Nature Isn’t”:

Toys R Us hasn’t pulled the commercial, and is reporting that the toy giant is actually enjoying a noticeable bump in brand recognition thanks to the  backlash—proving once again that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. 

In the end, of course, the toys vs. nature choice in the commercial is false reasoning, a forced dichotomy that doesn’t make sense. My girls appear to get a lot of pleasure from building elaborate railroad tracks for their train engines, from their posse of dolls and their art supplies. They just don’t need so many toys, so often, and perhaps not nearly as much as they need fresh air and free time to play outside, with sticks and rocks, building snow forts and tracing their initials in sandy arroyos right out the back door.

Nature makes its own toys. No child should have to choose between the two. 

So how to keep gift-buying and giving simple and avoid getting snowed by mainstream consumer mania this season? Here are a few ideas.

Give memories.
Instead of wrapping up the latest battery-operated gizmo, present your child with a voucher to go sledding on the next snow day, a pair of tickets to a matinee at the local movie house, an afternoon at the climbing gym. Take them skiing or ice skating, or teach them how to bowl. Spending time with your kids is much more valuable than expensive gifts.

Give away.
Before Christmas and birthdays, we try to clear out unused toys and give them away to kids who might not be as fortunate. When my daughters were babies, I’d purge their long neglected puppets and stuffed animals for them, but now that they’re older, I encourage them to decide what they want to part with. We fill bags of recycled treats to donate to the local shelter (take the kids to deliver the bags, and they’ll have a new appreciation for the roof over their head). Not only does this make room for new loot, but it also teaches them that giving feels as good, or better, than receiving.

Make your own.
I am the least crafty person on the planet, so this one always intimidates me. But the truth is, you don’t have to be handy with papier-mâché or knitting needles or a sewing machine to make some pretty great gifts this season. Bake a batch of gingerbread men or make a personalized photo book or calendar on sites like iphoto, Shutterfly or Tiny Prints (grandparents go nuts over those things). 

Log off and get out.
Scale back on your screen time and try to spend 18 to 20 hours outside with your kids this week. The blog 1000 Hours Outside offers weekly challenges and clever ideas for ways the whole family can get fresh air together. Build teepees and balance beams out of fallen logs (“nature’s gymnastics class”) or paint trees and clouds with watercolors. The next challenge starts December 1, and winners receive $50 gift certificates to a natural family store.

Buy nothing.
Boycott Black Friday and play outside in honor of Buy Nothing day, Friday, November 30. We’ll be hiking and mountain biking with our daughters in Moab. What will you be doing?

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