Spoiled Rotten

My mom used to wear slim gold necklaces. People whispered to my dad at his office Christmas parties, that surely, being a doctor, he could afford to buy some nice jewelry for her. So he did, more than once. But she never liked it.

For years and years my dad wore a shoddy leather coat from Sears. People whispered to my mom that he was a doctor, and surely he should have a better coat. I don’t know if she ever got him one, but I don’t remember him wearing anything but the leather one.

My parents had working class roots and cheap tastes, and the culture of consumption they’d moved into never quite absorbed them. Buying things for their kids was different, though: lots and lots of Christmas gifts, not to mention Easter gifts, tooth fairy gifts, birthday gifts, and anything particularly good that came through the church rummage sale. Plus there were books, craft supplies, clothes, and candy whenever we wanted. We got allowances, but we hardly ever spent them, because sooner or later my parents would get us what we wanted.

Anything we stayed interested in for more than a year mushroomed into a collection, then a mammoth collection. I had a bookcase full of Breyer horses, shelves of nesting dolls and dragons, a top bunk full of stuffed animals, and so on. The problem was, the bigger a collection got, the less satisfying it was. That’s not because I was diluting their quality; technically I got nicer and nicer things the longer I collected them. But I never bonded with the late additions the way I had with the earlier ones. My collections got unwieldy to curate and overwhelming to play with.

Over time I wanted less and less. I’d come up with things to put on my Christmas list, because a Christmas list had to be made, but I was less and less eager, because manufacturing desire is work. The rituals of affection via gift-giving seemed more and more contrived, and more and more often I found myself not feeling so thankful. Eventually a funny thing happened: My brother and sister and I all grew up to have tastes and consumption habits nearly identical to our parents’. I buy myself virtually nothing (besides food and toilet paper and such), because I already have what I need, and I’ve had it for years. And though the three of us kids love each other, we frequently don’t bother exchanging presents.

Now, confessing to privilege and then saying “but it totally wasn’t a big deal” is always a dick move. I wanted the toys I got when I got them, and I was lucky not to have to worry about money. It would be disingenuous to say that I could’ve done without all those toys, because I know that I didn’t get my current values in spite of my background, so much as I got them because of it. Counterintuitive? Sometimes I hear about people raising their kids to be non-materialistic by not giving them many toys, or raising their kids to be healthy eaters by rationing their consumption of sweets. I suspect that strategy backfires if the kid feels deprived. Scarcity and lack of control over the things you want usually make people more obsessed with those things instead of less. Make what they want available consistently and undramatically, and you generally take away the craving. If we could afford it, I’m not sure I’d choose a different strategy for raising Rebecca (though the moral / environmental issues with consumption mean that maybe I wouldn’t).

Nevertheless, it’s a crapshoot whether that strategy would work again, because values are more complicated than a behavioralist account of scarcity and demand. It made a difference that my parents modeled fairly minimal consumption and happiness with what they had, but it wasn’t determinative. For example, my current food habits have little relationship with how I was raised, and more to do with a series of people I’ve shared food with: discovering ethnic food with Ted in Chicago and high-end cuisine when we started watching Iron Chef with our geek friends a few years later, then learning about locally grown food from my friends in grad school. You could tell the story of my other consumption habits the same way, as a history of the consumption cultures I spurned or joined up with in high school, in college, and in grad school.

The anomaly is my current purchasing habits. I’m out of step with almost everyone I know–and I know some of them find my lack of investment in home decor off-putting–and I’m conflicted about giving and receiving Christmas gifts. I take Rebecca shopping so that she can have the experience of thinking about someone and what they might like, because that’s important, right? I like the idea of showing your affection by getting people things that’ll make them happy. But most of the time I can’t get that account to stick to the actual things I’m getting and receiving. It’s not that we’re lousy gift-givers, though, it’s that we’ve been set up to fail. The scale of the holiday kills it, the same way it did when I was growing up.

Anybody else want to do some navel gazing and tell me the history of your consumption habits? How do you feel about the number of gifts you’re giving and receiving?