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Toning Down The Holiday ‘Wants’


There's an actual name for the cries and whining and desperate pleas from children who want something very, very badly. It's called "Pester Power." Advertisers rely on it year round but no time more than during the Holiday season. Parents may scold kids for that sort of behavior, but the message is clear. If your children want something, you may feel a great deal of pressure to get it even if you really can't afford it. So we offer some last-minute advice to parents and other family members who can't afford to spend a lot this Holiday.

There's an actual name for the cries and whining and desperate pleas from children who want something very, very badly. It's called "Pester Power." Advertisers rely on it year round but no time more than during the Holiday season. Parents may scold kids for that sort of behavior, but the message is clear. If your children want something, you may feel a great deal of pressure to get it even if you really can't afford it. So we offer some last-minute advice to parents and other family members who can't afford to spend a lot this Holiday.


David Peters, Family Psychotherapist with a private practice in Mission Valley

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. There's an actual name for the cries and whining and desperate pleas from children who want something very, very badly. It's called pester power. Advertisers rely on it year-round, but no time more than during the holiday season. Now parents may have scold kids for that sort of behavior, but the message is clear: If your children want something, you may feel a great deal of pressure to get it, even if you really can't afford it. Many families who as well planned to cut back this holiday season may just blow their plans this final week before Christmas due to kind hearts and pester power. So we offer some last minute advice to parents and other family members who can't afford to spend a lot this holiday. And we'll be taking your calls. I'd like to introduce my guest, David Peters is a family psychotherapist with a private practice in mission valley. Welcome back, David.

PETERS: Always good to be with you, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And we do invite our listeners to join this conversation. Were you going to weigh an expensive gift even if it's against your better judgment because you want to please your kids or another family member? What kinds of presents have injure kids been asking for? Give us a call with your questions and your comments, our number is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. You know, that pester power can over whelm even the best intentions, David. Tell us why kids are so persistent about these things.

PETERS: Well, kids these days are raised in a material, commercial world where they eat and breathe advertisement, all day long. They are being given advertisement from their earliest times that they're able to watch television. And not only do they know what products are out there and which products are the best, but they know how to convince their parents 'cause they've kind of been coached on what lines to use. And so it is difficult for them to step outside that commercial world that they live in, and that their friends live in, and it's a challenge for families to help them step outside that commercial world.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Is it so -- are children really susceptible to the advertising messages, or I would imagine that advertisers themselves do a great deal of research into how to get children to really just think that this particular gift or this particular item will make or break their entire lives?

PETERS: Yes, indeed. Don't be mistaken, there are many millions of dollars spent in the science of selling to adults and children. And what the marketers know is if you can hook a child young into a name brand, then you can keep them for many, many years into the future, and you can keep adding on things that are necessary to their toys or to their outfits that they want to wear to school or their iPads or iPods, whatever they're trying to get. And so these are a young group of people who really are drenched in that material culture there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, as I said in the beginning, money is still very tight for a lot of families. We know that unemployment is still high. And Christmas, you just can't be the usual over consumption, that many of us have come to know as that. And that is a big change for a lot of families isn't and.

PETERS: Oh, yes, it's a big change. During the booming years, there were a lot of families who were feeling comfortable with their money for the first time, having a little bit excess, and buying the bigger home and buying the bigger car. And were indulging their kids and over indulging their kids. Of and in my experience as a [CHECK AUDIO] you lower the value of everything they own because they own more and more of it's a simple mathematical formula. And the kids don't grow up as easily. They have don't mature as easily when they get everything they want. So now for some of these families, they have had a lot of money, they have been over spending on the kids. And now they have to throttle back because mom or dad has lost that big paying job, and is now working some place as a checker at a local store may be or maybe even is unemployed and they're having to cut back in order to just pay the mortgage. And that's a big shocking change. And I think it's important for kids to be direct to their kids and explain to them the economic realities. We don't seven them well at all by pretending things are fine when they're not the. And we don't serve them well when we don't give them enough information about what's going on. The rule of thumb is always give your kids as much information as they're old enough to understand. So a five-year-old understands far less about economics than a 15-year-old. But someone who's 15 years old can understand a lot about family economics and about their role in sacrificing or their role in making their own little money on the side to help themselves out. So this is it an opportunity to learn if the parents seize it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We -- my guest is David Peters, he's a family psychotherapist with a private practice in mission valley. We're talking about pester power and buying more than you can afford to try to please your children and other family members this holiday. Of how to avoid doing that, and what you can do to keep to your holiday budget. Our number here is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. Celia is calling from San Diego, good morning, Celia, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, thank you so much for taking my call. I will preface my comment by saying they am a grandmother, and my family, my son and daughter in law and kids, moved back here about four years ago to San Diego. And I went up to their house one day and rang the door bell, and my grandson opened the door, and the first thing out of his mouth was, what did you bring me? And right then, I made up my mind I would never do gifts again. I send cards on their birthdays, I send them a card at Christmas. I think parents today are overwhelmed, I think in a case of a two parent household, they feel guilty because they can't spend more time with their children. And TV, peer influence, it's I want I want I want. And these kids are, like, 6 and 8. And it's very, very sad to me to fill a child's life with things.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Celia, thank you so much for calling in, I'd like to get your reaction to that, David.

PETERS: Celia is making an extremely important point that is accurate. Many parents do feel guilty for the time they're not spending with their children. This is common for the two parent working family. Now, many of these families have no choice. It requires two incomes to fulfill the needs of the family. But the guilty they feel gives into [CHECK AUDIO] it's the most fun when she gets to spoil the kids when visiting. If the parents are strict and tight with the building or strict about how much wealth or material goods [CHECK AUDIO] come to the door expecting it. So we have this distorted reality. So I applaud her for her concern. It's definitely on target. And I'm hoping more families can be concerned. The -- when kids look to you and expect, you're going to give me something, and that's your way of showing love, well, they're preparing themselves for deep disappointment as adults.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are talking today about Christmas gifts and asking you whether or not you're expecting -- you're intending to buy an expensive gift even against your better judgment because you want to please your kids or another family member. We're also asking, what kinds of presents have your kids been asking you for? Taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Nicole is calling from San Diego. Good morning, Nicole, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. How are you?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Just fine, thanks for calling.

NEW SPEAKER: I was just listening to you guys talk, and I'm a teacher in a low income school. And one of the students had made a comment, to one of my friends, who's a second grade teacher and said did you know Santa's broke this year? My mommy and daddy told me. And I think it's kind of interesting because in the lower income schools, I find working with those students, they don't typically ask for giant things that are really expensive. They have kind of want things that are less expensive. And things that other kids take for granted like a bicycle or a skate board.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right, right well, thank you for calling in, Nicole. I appreciate it. Now, she raises a lot of questions, David. But one of them is, what do you do about your kids who still, you know, believe that Santa's gonna bring presents? How do you sort of broach the issue that in this case, somebody told the kids Santa's broke this year.

PETERS: Yes, yes, it is a difficult challenge for parents with young kids to whom Santa Claus is very important. And our movie industry has given the impression that Santa Claus is magic and it do anything. And the reality is, Santa does have some limitations, and during bad economic times, I like to coach parents on how to explain to children of it's an awkward explanation but it's the best that I've been able to come up with, are is that this year there are many poor children who are struggling with not enough to eat, or not even shoes to wear, and Santa Claus is spending more of his time there focussing on truly impoverished kids. And so we, mom and dad, told Santa Claus earlier this year that we wanted to sacrifice and let him spend more time with those really needy kids who are hungry and don't have shoes to wear and so on. And so we're part of this solution to this problem, and it's part of Christmas, and part of giving and part of sacrificing. And so you teach the children about economic reality, you teach them about love, you teach them about taking care of your neighbor at the same time. And I think it's an important part of the spiritual practice within the season, which is so much more important than the material practice, and it also might be a good way to work around the real challenge when Santa Claus can't provide all the toys that the children want. I even go as far as suggest for parents that many families do have a lot of old toys around the house that need to be gotten rid of, and I suggest that parents take those and with the children and say we're gonna bring these over to, say, the salvation army or AmVets or something, and take the kids with you, and say, these are going to families who don't have money at all, who don't have anything to give their children so they can get things that you and I have enjoyed. So you're teaching the children in a way of teaching them how to give, and about sacrifice and about economic reality, and all of this is a part of helping children grow up, helping children mature. The more we actively participate in this teaching, the better off we are as the kids grow into their teen years.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: My guest is family psychotherapist, David Peters, and I think, David, one of the things that I'm struck by about the power of this advertising about the kids wanting things, and the -- this lure of expensive presents is that you would actually be asked to tell your patients how to coach -- how to coach your patients to tell their children that they weren't gonna be getting them that much for Christmas. I mean, this is part of your therapy session. I think that's amazing.

PETERS: It is incredible. Much of my time gets taken up with the basics of child rearing, 'cause families come in with great stress and great anxiety, and among the problems are child rearing issues. And sometimes it's hard to get to the couples counseling or the marital counseling or the individual therapy when there are multiple distractions that people have to deal with. [CHECK AUDIO].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you find that kids can understand that cutting back is part of a budget issue and separate it from how much their parents care about them and love them?

PETERS: Most, certainly. Absolutely. Parents can show love by hugging, by holding, by story reading, by joke telling, by tickling, and going on outings, by spending time quietly. A parent can show greater love just laying on the floor with coloring cranes and coloring books and just innocently playing with the kids. Kids are trained by television and the culture that they see around them to ask for material things. But it's the parents' job to teach them other things and to teach them how much fun we can have without those objects. I don't suggest that parents deprive their children. Give them according to what you believe they really need. But if you're keeping them up really well, and giving them everything that their friends have, [CHECK AUDIO] it is a waste of money, it doesn't bring happiness. In fact, it can lower your children's happiness by giving them too many objects. I see this time and time again, parents come in, they say, well, we spent $400 on presents for this kid, and he's got a bad attitude. And I say, well, no wonder. [CHECK AUDIO] none of this is giving him the happiness he thought he would get from it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Jerry is calling from La Jolla. Good morning, Jerry, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. I think there's one cheap thing you can do is give your kids time, your time instead of running around and filling up your cart and getting those last minute items, stay home and hang out with their children. That's what I remember back when I was a child. I remember the time that my parents spent with me. And les so the things they got me.


NEW SPEAKER: And I think it's also -- it's hard to do this just at Christmas time. I think it's sort of a lifestyle that you have to inculcate into your children that happiness doesn't come from things, it comes from moments or appreciations or relationships. And you know, giving to others and appreciating what we have will give us more happiness than getting a thing will give us.


NEW SPEAKER: And that's sort of a reality.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Jerry, thank you, thank you so much for adding that. I appreciate it. I want to take another call right now. AAndrew is calling from Ocean Beach. Good morning, Andrew, and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, thank you, awesome show as usual. I just wanted to share and give my $0.02 on a lot of people are kind of -- do they want to buy an expensive gift, that's $200 or something, like a watch, and then they kind of shoot down and say, you know, I saw the one almost as nice for $50. Sometimes they don't even need to get that watch, because a lot of people are just particular with their gifts and a lot of times you can save yourself some grief, by getting something completely different [CHECK AUDIO].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Gotcha, Andrew. Thank you, and I'd like to get your response to [CHECK AUDIO].

PETERS: No, it has to be the iPhone, it can't be any phone. It has to be this label or this quality. And kids know their objects, and a lot of these objects are technological objects. And if you can't afford the one they want, frequently getting the one that's far less money but is not really what they want, only let's them feel frustrated.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I know, I remember back to childhood myself I mean, yes, you know exactly what it is you want. And if you don't get that, if you get sort of the knock off Barbie, you're not happy.

PETERS: You're not happy. Because your social self esteem is at stake. You go off with all the friends on the street, and everybody's showing their toys and you got the odd one.


PETERS: It is better, if you can't afford that one, sometimes it is better to not even attempt it. Just explain to your kid, you know what, that's not on the list this year. Get used to it, we're going to have to deal with this reality.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Or you recommend maybe if they can afford that and nothing else, say if you want that, listen, that's what you're getting and nothing else.

PETERS: Yeah. If that's the economic possibility. If you can afford that one prize object that -- usually it's nowadays like an Ipad or an iPhone or something like that. These expensive items. If you can afford the one, it is okay to tell your kids, we're gonna trade this. You're gonna get one, and you're gonna get nothing else, and you have to be able to tolerate that. And some teenagers will really go for it. They'll say, I'll be grateful. This'll be fine. So if you can afford that one item, you might want to choose to go for it. But it's not required that you afford that item of it's not required for your young person's happiness of I've seen cases in my office of families who have gone without for many years, and when the teenage son -- got a case right now, a family that's been living for humbly for a good many years due to illness and a single patient family, and the teenage son just now beginning to work at his own job, has some of his own money, and because he's been well trained, one of the first things he wants to do with his money is get his sister a Christmas gift, a really nice one. And this is a beautiful moment. [CHECK AUDIO] so here we have wonderful economics and family love, and it's because of teaching a child, you know, about what real life is and about how to do without.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You ask also, of course, go on lean and post your comment at Days. Blanca is calling from Rancho Bernardo. And Blanca, welcome.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, excuse me, hello?


NEW SPEAKER: I just had a comment for the grandmother whose grandson opened the door and said what do you have for me. Instead of giving him things he could say I brought you a hug, I brought you a board game that we could play together, a day at the part, something that is the gift of time and still be able to nurture as a grandma.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Good advice, thank you Blanca. Thanks for calling in. And we've been talking a lot about kids and how to sort of break the news to children that perhaps they're not getting as much this year as they have formerly, and the whole importance of not over commercializing your own children. But what can you do to convince the parents? I mean parents feel a lot of responsibility to be able to make their children happy, to give them all they want for Christmas, to be able to surprise them Christmas morning with oh, my goodness, we said we couldn't afford that thing and now we've gotten that thing for you. What do you -- what do you advise them to do with these feelings that they have?

PETERS: Frequently parents are overwhelmed with guilt. And as -- when a previous call are suggested, that guilt for not spending enough time with their kids. Nay don't really understand that. They just feel liege oh, my kid wants this, he wants it, and I'll feel terrible if he doesn't get it. Of and this is time for parents to grow up. Get over the guilt. If it's not economically wise to be spending this kind of money issue then you're gonna cause more problems by spending it. And the same way we want to control our eating and not eat too many cookies and sodas, we want to manage our spending, and that's part of personal growth, and it's part of parents' responsibility to deal with feelings of get [CHECK AUDIO] primarily invested in their kids having the best stuff because the parents were raised with the best. Of and here we have truly an impoverished family living in wealth where their self esteem is then based in the objects, based in the material wealth. And you don't raise good kids this way. Aye seen kids who were competent, who were intelligent, who were doing well in school, but had no sense of identity to their family, no sense of love or gratitude to their family because they were so over indulged for so many years. And by the time a kid is a teenager, if they have been indulged all their life, it's pretty much too late to turn it around. You can impoverish kids by giving them too much. Let's appreciate that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's interesting. I don't want to leave this discussion without expanding it for just a moment beyond children because I've been seeing a lot of -- this time of year, we see a lot of advertising, especially a lot of jewelry advertising that seems to say, you know, your wife or girlfriend really should get something just marvelous or expensive, some sparkling jewels, that's the way to really show your love for your loved one. And I'd like to get your take on that as well.

PETERS: Yes, well, are the marketers know how to market to adults as well as children. My favorite Hine is from a number of years back, a radio ad, that said this year, give the gift that's truly in the spirit of Christmas. Give her a jaguar. [CHECK AUDIO] is approximate a child born into poverty into very limited means and giving in poverty all through his life? And to directly relate the Christmas spirit to diamonds and jewels and cars, this is absurdity. This is really a rape of a holiday, of what has been a religious holiday for so many people. And I really want to encourage people, get out of the commercial world on this. You know, you can celebrate much happier, you can raise your children better, you can show love for your spouse much better without the emphasis on the money. Do the emphasis on time together, enjoying one another, taking a break, you know? And making objects, making dinner in the home, spend time singing songs or on outings during the Christmas break. And certainly, you know, what I'd like to add here is the attention to -- for many families who are listening are not struggling financially, and I'd like to state to all those families who are not struggling to remember there's a large number of families who are struggling just to buy the child a basketball or a football, and it's not too late to go on-line to the toys for tots website, and you can spend cash directly. You don't have to go to the store and find toys and buy the toys to drop them off. You can go on-line, and within minutes use your credit card to donate. And they're in need right now. . And we can help those families out who are struggling.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm gonna be taking a little bit more about that in just a minute. But just the final word, because this is the last week before Christmas, a lot of people feel a lot of pressure, it's now or never, if I'm gonna break the bank for the kids [CHECK AUDIO].

PETERS: Breaking the bank is a sign of neurosis, I'd rather you come spend the money in my office, and I'll talk you into not spending so much money on the objects. You know? No. Just put that money away for a vacation perhaps.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's a good idea. Well, I do want to emphasize what David Peters was saying about that, if you'd like to give something that will make a difference this Christmas, the marine toys for tots program here in San Diego is in real need of donations. Of they are extending their deadline and accepting toys until this Thursday, that's December 23rd. They really need toys for ages 032, and 10 and up, both girls' toys and boys' toys. To find a drop off location or make a cash donation, their website is, you can select the San Diego California location. David Peters, thank you once again, happy holidays.

PETERS: Happy holidays to you, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And if you would like to comment, please go on-line, Days. Stay with us for hour two, coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

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