I was asked this recently. An old friend wrote to me:
“We found this AWESOME toy for our son, but it is super pricey—$150. It is a super cool programmable robot. I love that it teaches programming at different stages. So at 5 to 8 you can program using pictures and colors. When you get older than that, you can start using pre-written block code that attaches and clicks together like a puzzle. Once you get the hang of it, you can then write your own code.
You seem to have a balanced head on your shoulders—I need some insight.
How does one navigate what is appropriate to spend?”
Chrissy and I spent a year in a mountaintop Nicaraguan village, living with 40 families in abject poverty, without power, with only the rain for water, and a 30-year-old tractor as the only transportation.
In China, we visited the homes of some of our students (and friends) in rural Gansu province. Let’s just say kids did not have super cool programmable robots.
And when we lived in South Africa, our kids played with a collection of old bottle caps and a bucket with Zulu kids, happily oblivious to the fun things they did not have money to buy.
As we have come back to the US, we have thought a lot about how to be good parents, as well as how to be responsible stewards of the resources entrusted to us. In fact, Chrissy wrote a chapter about it in our book called “Washing Machine Guilt.”
Here are 7 questions to help you decide how much is too much to spend on a Christmas present for your kid. (Click to tweet this.)
1. How long will my kid will play with this?
I remember obsessing about what game to get once for my classic Nintendo system. I choose Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It was nearly impossible. I could not get past level two of five, and I rarely played it. This programmable robot is promising it will still cool, fun, and useful for kids in four years. That seems highly unlikely in both today’s toy and electronic market.
2. Is this for me or for my kid?
There are lots of amazing toys out there today, way cooler than Teddy Ruxpin and Speak & Spell from my youth. I can sometimes try to justify buying stuff “for the kids” that I really want to play with.
3. What will my kid learn from this?
Educational toys sometimes promise the moon. They know we’ll get out our credit cards because—let’s face it—in our culture, our kids are often our idols. We will spend a lot to help them learn and grow. But we need to be realistic about what we expect from our kids and their toys.
4. What does my child need?
You can use a gift to help push your kids in helpful ways. You might give them a board game to play with the rest of the family, a book of puzzles to work on alone, a game system to use as an excuse to invite friends over, or a movie with a particular theme. What you give can help them grow in important skills or character attributes.
5. Is there a less expensive option that is almost as fun and helpful?
I call this the “Zune Option,” because it’s a dangerous one. A few years ago, you could have gotten the sweet, new iPod for your kid. Or you could have saved a couple dollars and gotten a Microsoft Zune, their MP3 player. Oh, pity the child who received a Zune for Christmas—poor performance, pity (or worse) at school, and now, they still have a stupid Zune instead of a classic iPod. But this option, while dangerous, can sometimes uncover sometimes-as-good options, if you’re careful.
6. Can we wait a year for this one?
Because if you can, you’ll be able to buy last year’s really cool toy for half off somewhere.
7. How would I explain this to a friend in Nicaragua, China, or South Africa?
OK, this is a bit specific to our family. But think about someone who has very little, whether here or in another part of the world. How would feel about them listening to a presentation about your spending? This is a strong, effective gut-check.
8. Finally, why does my kid want this toy?
Often kids want something so they can show off to their friends. They want it because their friends want it. That’s sometimes a good reason to not get that present.
So that’s what I have for you, friend. It’s good for me to have to articulate this thinking.
I don’t think we have it all together. But Phoebe and Zeke are now 10 and 8. And they’re pretty cool little people. They are generous and creative. They read a lot. They have lots of friends and make more easily. They love to learn and excel in school. People often say things like, “Your kids are so freaking cool.”
I like to think we are partly responsible.
And I think not spending very much money on them is a big part of it.
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What other questions do you ask yourself? Leave a comment below.