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90'S FAMILY | REAL LIFE

Parents Get Trapped in a Toy Retailing Squeeze Play

December 15, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than gaining weight.

More than getting depressed.

More than crowds and annoying relatives.

What bothers parents the most about the holidays is, perhaps not surprisingly, the expense.

Of more than 1,000 parents who signed on to the Parent Soup Web site this month, 25% called "busting budget" their least favorite part of the holiday season. At the same time, one in five figured they were going to spend more than $900 on gifts.

What can they do? Even as in-laws are telling them the children are already spoiled, the little ones are begging, pleading, acting as if they might not survive, if they don't get the toy or toys they just saw on TV.

It's a common problem, and one that goes far beyond spoiled children or parental wimpiness, said Ellen Seiter, a professor of communication at UC San Diego.

Today's parents are squeezed between two long-term trends: decades of experts telling them to pay attention to their children's desires and decades of sophisticated consumer marketing directed at children.

Not only do children watch more television commercials than they used to, but toys are more widely available--in grocery stores and department stores as well as toy stores. "An incredible emphasis has gone on in the last decade or two to enhance packaging so it is exciting to children," said Seiter, author of "Sold Separately" (Rutgers University Press, 1995), a book about parents and children in consumer culture. "The colors are fabulous. You can reach out and touch it through the plastic."

In retailing, the toys are displayed at a child's eye level. And they are grouped in themes, so "the kids can't stand to buy one, they have to have three of them, or five of them," she said.

What's more, the marketers have zeroed in on the fact that children have no idea what anything costs. Prices are never mentioned in television commercials. Kids don't understand relative value.

"A lot of times kids are confused about the money issue," Seiter said. "They hear you say this is not an item of value in your scheme of things, but they see you can spend a lot of money on other things. The kid thinks, 'I've seen you buy shoes for me for $50, so why won't you get me the Barbie Playhouse?' "

Basically, Seiter said, "The setup is not in the parents' favor in Toys R Us."

In the face of such overwhelming forces, it does little good to shame children for bottomless wants or blame parents for giving in, some experts said.

Still, there is a way for parents to just say no.

"We need to be very permissive with feelings, but strict with behavior," said Nancy Samalin, director of Parent Guidance Workshops in New York. When a child is heading for a major meltdown in a toy store, for instance, Samalin suggests parents say, "Why don't you put that on your wish list?' It's a way of acknowledging their feelings and wishes without saying, 'My god, you're so greedy. Think of the poor children who have nothing.' "

If it is a question of money, both experts said it's best to be honest and firm about the amount of funds available.

But sometimes, parents also say no because the toy is junky, in poor taste, or goes against their values or politics. In that case, parents should think about saying yes, Seiter said. "Sometimes, you might want to put aside your own objections for the sake of helping kids get through a phase."

She still remembers that her mother never bought her a Barbie. "She only let me have Skipper, the pre-pubescent sister. It's the whole subtext of my book."

* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at lynn.smith@latimes.com. Please include a telephone number.

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