Will Space Unicorns Make Your Child Happy?Others, Finances , Mental Health
Contributed by: Food for the Hungry Canada
Written by: Eryn Austin-Bergen
It was dark purple and covered with unicorns and star constellations and galaxies. My daughter’s two favourite things right now? Unicorns and space. And it even glowed in the dark!
I pulled the duvet cover down from the neatly stocked shelf and held it longingly in my hands. I imagined my four-year-old daughter coming home from preschool, running into her room, and totally freaking out over her new, beautiful, space unicorn bedding. I saw myself tucking her in for the night, turning out the light, and hearing her squeal in delight as she discovered herself wrapped in an expansive, glowing night sky.
Then I flipped the package over. Sixty bucks for a thin cotton duvet cover and one pillow sham?!
My heart sank. Sixty dollars might not seem like a lot of money, but right now my husband is in grad school and I’m only pulling in 2/3rds of an income. This is not the time for impulsive purchases of frivolous unicorns.
The truth is, my daughter already has a beautiful duvet cover – pink flamingos and stripy zebras with bright green fern leaves. She does not need two duvet covers.
I stayed in front of that shelf for a long time, holding my daughter’s happiness in my hands and letting it sink in that I was not, in fact, going to buy it.
I’m ashamed to admit that this is not the only time I’ve had such an experience. It happens almost weekly. Anytime I see shoes or clothes or toys that I know my daughter would love I get a pang in my heart. I so badly want to pull out the credit card and make all her dreams come true. Especially at this time of year.
And, evidently, I’m not the only one. This Christmas, the average Canadian will spend between $643 and $675 on toys, games, and hobby supplies. As a nation, we’ll fork over a total of $417.8 million on stuff to put under the tree. Why? Because we have (literally) bought into the lie that stuff can make us – and, more importantly, our children – happy.
And it’s not just moms like me that are racking up the credit cards. According to surveys conducted last year, Millennial dads are leading an increase in holiday spending – on average, Canadian men intended to shell out $1,752 during the 2018 holidays while women expected to spend around $250 less than that.
But in a 2017 Angus Reid survey conducted for CIBC, many of us Canadians reported that we feel our holiday spending is out of control and more than half of us secretly know we’ll spend more than we budget. “People are spending more over the holidays than they have in the past and they’re telling us they can’t really afford it,” says David Nicholson, vice-president of CIBC Imperial Service.
Sadly, the problem doesn’t go away after Christmas is over. Our compulsion to spend more than we should during the holidays contributes to our country’s year-round high household debt levels.
When the wrapping paper is finally crammed into the recycling bins and the tree comes down for another year, 64 percent of us will agree that “holiday spending is out of control”.  We are left stressed and filled with regret. Whatever desires drove us to spend beyond our means have left us with a gnawing feeling inside that we have made a terrible mistake. Our children don’t love us more than they did in November. Our spouses haven’t magically become more devoted. And our broken relationships are only further strained by the weight of debt and misspent funds.
When I think back to my own childhood, I did love getting presents. I loved the shiny paper and copious amounts of ribbon my family uses. I loved the suspense and the big reveal. And I loved stuff – toys and clothes and shoes and all of it. But when I describe my childhood Christmas memories to people now, the toys are not what I find myself talking about.
Instead, I recount how, every year on the day after American Thanksgiving, my dad and I would hang Christmas lights all around the living room and dining room. I talk about making and decorating cookies with my mom. And how, each day of Advent, our family would crowd around the same red felt calendar my mom handmade in the early 1980’s and try to guess what ornament was due to come out of the day’s pocket. I cherished the candlelit Christmas Eve services, the late-night star gazing, and playing the same Amy Grant Christmas album year after year. The sacred moments of coming close to Jesus, the quirky family traditions, the special time spent together – those are the things I remember.
According to the CDC, depression and anxiety in children today is on the rise. In Canada, about six percent of children and youth experience an anxiety disorder, making it the most common illness to affect younger age groups. And as many as two out of every 100 young children and eight out of every 100 teens have serious depression.
These ratios might not, at first reading, appear high. But when, as a parent, I think about the roughly 100 children running around my daughter’s preschool – jumping on the trampoline, twirling in rainbow glitter skirts, roaring like dinosaurs, covering themselves in finger paint – my heart breaks at the thought of even two of them being debilitated by the oppressive clouds of depression. No child should have to suffer that kind of emotional pain.
The causes of mental illness in children are legion, and I am not a medical expert. But one thing seems pretty clear to me – if both our holiday spending habits and childhood depression are concurrently on the rise, buying our kids more stuff probably isn’t going to help them cope with a world they find increasingly overwhelming.
So, what will?
After supper each day (okay, most days), we sit down as a family, read a Bible story together, and then each say one thing we’re thankful for and one thing we want to pray about. The vast majority of nights, you know what my daughter says? “I’m thankful for playing with you, Mommy” or “for wrestling you, Daddy” or some version of those two things. She does not say, “I’m thankful for the pink unicorn stuffy you bought me four months ago.”
What sticks with her, what she craves, are those precious moments of undivided attention when we put away our phones and our to-do lists and focus on her. We colour, we build Lego, we wrestle, we play hide-and-seek, we go on adventures to the nearby pond. At the end of the day, my four-year-old does not need a second duvet of space unicorns. She needs me.
And I am exactly the same. What I need from my heavenly dad is not a bigger apartment, or a higher paying job, or those clothes that make me feel like a million bucks. What I need is him. I crave his attention, his nearness. I need his presence to be real in my daily life.
And God knows it. He knows the most precious, joyful, and costly gift he could ever give us was himself. So, two thousand years ago, he came. Jesus came in our skin and felt what it was like to live our lives. He came to be not just near us, but among us. Jesus, in his person, was God’s best gift to us. And we, in ourselves, are our best gift back to him.
As we head out to do our Christmas gift shopping, let’s try something new. Let’s resist consumerism and resolve to give our children what they really want, what they really need – ourselves. Let’s reign in the spending, stick to those budgets, and go into the new year free of regret. Let’s buy fewer things for our kids and instead choose gifts that will help us make hours of creative and life-giving memories together. Let’s make the costly decision to give our children our time, our attention, our debt-free and stress-free selves.
As a footnote, can I suggest we take some of that money we didn’t spend on things our children don’t need and share it with people who desperately do need material support? The FH Gift Guide is great way to get your kids involved in helping parents whose daily question this time of year is not “What toy will I buy my daughter for Christmas?” but rather, “What will I feed my daughter today?”
About the Author: Eryn Austin-Bergen
Originally from the United States, Eryn grew up in The Gambia and Senegal, and as an adult, made her home in Canada. A student of culture and the Bible by education, copywriter by trade, and preacher by passion Eryn worked for FH Canada for four and half years before moving to South Africa with her husband and three-year-old daughter. She now spends her days writing, housewife-ing, mothering, and neighbouring. Check out her website Writing for a Change.