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Taming the Gimmes

Holiday madness has already begun! I can't go anywhere without one of my kids asking for me to buy her something and the other is constantly amending her mile-long Christmas list. The spirit of the season feels like it is lost on our girls. Help!

You are not alone. Parents everywhere started bracing themselves for the onslaught of holiday advertising starting around Halloween and now we are certainly in the thick of it. 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.

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

Whether or not you celebrate christmas, most kids in the U.S. are inundated with marketing messages leading up to the holiday. Here are a couple of tips for taming the gimmes that might help restore some balance for our kids.

The goal is for our children to learn that seeking out relationships, opportunities to be kind, and ways to give is what matters most not only during the holiday season but all year long.

Good luck and happy winter,

Erin Walsh