Giving Intangible Gifts

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Tickle me Elmo

Black Friday.

The day that dreams begin to come true. The most intense shopping day of the year. The day that stores open at 4 AM to long lines of people who have been waiting outside in the frigid cold for hours, with parking lots converted into campgrounds. The day on which hopes will be fulfilled or broken. Black Friday.

If you missed out on Black Friday, if you were not on line for hours in the cold and rain, don’t worry. Black Friday is not the greatest thrill of the shopping season. It pales in comparison to the Unobtainable Object of the Season (UOS). This is a phenomenon of such great proportion that not every year merits to have one. Only once every two or three years do they surface, quietly at first, but then gathering weight like a sumo wrestler on steroids until you can’t ignore them. Children become hypnotized by them, parents become panic stricken to get them, the media loves them, and most of America loves to hate them.

One of the UOS’s that I watched in full bloom was the Tickle Me Elmo. For those of you who don’t remember this craze, it was over a $14 doll of Elmo, that when pushed in the belly, made a distinct laughing sound that went like this: Tee hee hee, tee hee hee hee! It was superbly exciting and captivating, and within a few weeks any normal, well-adjusted child in the USA needed one, much like fish need water.

It was at this moment that a basic principle of economics, the Law of Supply and Demand, began to work wonders. As the demand increased and the supply dwindled, the prices began to soar. At first people were selling them for $80 but that was a bargain. Soon people were charging $500 for each toy. At the height of the UOS craze, there were newspapers reporting Elmo’s that had been sold for over $3,000! (There must have been hundreds of people walking around saying, “If only I would have bought a truckload of those toys at $80 like my friend told me, I would be a millionaire now!)

Last year the UOS was the Playstation 3 console. Following UOS modus operandi, it was released on Nov 17 so that by the time the shopping season started, the hype was fully pumped. Parents camped out for up to a week in the streets to be able to buy the first PS3s for their children. I passed one of these lines in NYC and couldn’t believe my eyes! It was the Monday night before a Friday morning release, and sitting on chairs, lying on blankets, and standing around were dozens of adults, trying to stay warm in the cold night, determined to be from the select few that obtain the unobtainable! Reports of violence surrounding the release of the PS3 included a customer shot, campers robbed at gunpoint, customers shot in a drive-by shooting with BB guns, and 60 campers fighting over 10 consoles.

And this year, it seems like we have an UOS as well. Hannah Montana tickets. I never heard of her until I gave a class and mentioned “the best of both worlds”, which happens to be the name of her tour. It seems she is the star of a Disney show about a high school girl who secretly is a rock star, by the name of Hannah Montana. It also seems like people are dying to get into her concerts and they have officially become the UOS of the season. Already before Black Friday, the hype was in full swing.

Parents will do just about anything to get Hannah Montana tickets for their children. Nowhere was this more evident than in Tampa, FL where a 35–year-old mom held onto a 12 foot statue of the teen-superstar for six days to score tickets for her seven-year-old daughter. She was allowed a twelve minute break every three hours and got free meals, but she was not allowed books, cellphones, or iPods. Although twenty contestants began the competition, only Jody Powell hung on tenaciously until after all the weak ones fell away. No one can describe the sweet feeling of triumph she felt, better than she, and upon receiving the tickets she exclaimed, “I’m ecstatic. It’s like a dream come true!”

But the excitement isn’t contained to Tampa, it spreading all over the country. In Indianapolis a local stay-at-home mom with an 8-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son placed the winning bid on four tickets to a Hannah Montana concert. The final price: $13,000! You too can join the fun, as Hannah Montana is surely coming to a location near you, and you should be able to get excellent seats for just $1550 a ticket! (Disclaimer: In case you think I’m suggesting, advocating, supporting, or endorsing anyone going to this concert, I am not. I think you would be much better off spending your money on pet rocks or Bulgarian hammers.)

What bothers me most about the Unobtainable Object of the Season is not the vast amounts of money that get wasted on ridiculous items, but the format they all follow. Parents bending over backward to fulfill the unrealistic dreams of their children. Parents who feel beholden to their children, who have to make them “happy” no matter what the cost. Parents who feel ecstatic upon doing something far beyond the pale of reason for their children.

The truth is that it is not the “spoiled” kids who are to blame but the parents who teach them that they can demand whatever they want. These kids have learned over the years that if they whine and cry enough, even a $2,500 doll is not out of the question. Many parents feel that spending obscene amounts of time and effort to buy the latest trend shows how much they love their children, yet the opposite is true. This “giving” topples the normal balance of power in a home, giving the children the power to control their parents as well as the decision-making process. It disorients children who innately crave parental structure and stability. Consequently, the children become disrespectful to the parents, who they subconsciously fault for failing to set up a balanced home.

A friend of mine was once was involved with a family that had extraordinary discipline problems. The children would swear at their parents and say awful things to them. When the parents made simple requests of them, they were met with shouting and abuse. One day the mother said to him, “I don’t understand why my children hate me, I give them everything!” Possibly the only thing she wasn’t giving them was a mother. Just giving children gifts, especially when they are out of proportion to their accomplishments, is not necessarily giving; it is often taking. It takes from children the ability to understand the privilege-responsibility dynamic that underpins all healthy relationships. It takes from them the pride and self-confidence that comes along with achieving rewards you worked for.

As we head out to the shopping season to get Chanukah gifts for our families, let’s remember that what we give and how we give goes much deeper than the wrapping paper and ribbons. Let’s remember that along with every gift comes a lesson. Our gifts will teach our children boundaries, limitations, thoughtfulness, and responsibility… or the opposite.

But even more than that, we can use Chanukah to teach our children positive lessons, of how to become givers who are focused on others. We can encourage our children to give each other gifts, to give their teachers gifts, and to learn the joys of generosity and beneficence. When I was younger, my parents set up Chanukah in such away that every child bought and wrapped presents for his or her siblings. This left me with a powerful message about the value of giving, one that I will share with my children this Chanukah.

This year let us give our children the gift of giving!

Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.