Keep your kids far away from Christmas toy ads, for your wallet's sake 

The first time I saw it, my stomach dropped into my shoes.

On the television screen, a gang of preschoolers decked out in English riding gear raced each other astride child-sized toy ponies. The ponies were a marvel of mechanized action, galloping jauntily down a miniature racetrack. It was a commercial fantasy-come-true for my 5-year-old daughter—which was why I had to make sure that she never laid eyes on it. I'm no Real Housewife of Nashville, and my Christmas budget doesn't include a $200 robotic pony. But try telling that to the toy manufacturers.

Each year, they stick it to the parents, buying up hours and hours of airtime on all the kids' channels to showcase their most expensive toys. Last year, Punky waxed rhapsodic about a life-sized golden retriever named Biscuit, which for just under $200 would bark, wag its tail and shake your hand with its paw. I tried to explain that she could do all that and more with the real thing in our backyard for free, but she wasn't interested.

My son Bruiser preferred Spike, a gigantic $150 robotic dinosaur. Through clever scheming and a heartbreaking tale of Santa's bad back, I was able to redirect both kids' yearnings to smaller, more affordable toys. But this year, it hasn't been so easy.

"Santa bring that!" Bruiser, now 2-and-a-half, shouts each time he sees a commercial that depicts two boys off-roading in the Fisher Price Power Wheels Jeep Hurricane. "I want Santa bring me that, Mommy!" He climbs up on the sofa and stands beside me, pressing his cheek against mine.

"I want Santa bring that," he whispers confidentially into my ear, pressing his body against mine. I try to scoot over and he leans harder.

"Stop it, Bruiser!" I say. "You're hurting me!" He stays where he is, hypnotized by the image of 5-year-old boys laughing raucously as they bounce along a dirt road. "I want Santa bring that," he repeats obstinately.

"OK! OK!" I say. "Will you get off?" Satisfied, he climbs back down. Out of curiosity and some vague desire to inflict pain on myself, I look up the Jeep online. It includes a real FM radio and two cupholders!

It's also $365. Did Fisher Price not get the memo about this little thing we're all in called a recession?

Fortunately, I was confident that Bruiser would soon forget about the Jeep. Instead, I went hunting for his Christmas toys at a consignment sale. Almost immediately, I spotted an enormous, sealed plastic bag with a tag on it that read, "Imaginext Pirate Ship and War Wagon! $12!" It was too good to be true!

That night, I began assembling the pirate ship, looking at a picture of it on the Internet for reference. When I finished, I had two-thirds of a ship, with a gaping hole at one end where the prow should have been, missing railing and a broken crow's-nest.

At that moment, Hubs walked into the room and I looked up at him, my face burning.

"Just throw it away," he said dismally. So much for that idea.

In a final last-ditch effort, we decided to keep the kids away from any store containing a toy department this year, opting instead to save a few catalogs that we could go through together. When I showed them to Punky, she pored over each page carefully, marking the ones with items she liked. She marveled at tricked-out bicycles, gasped with pleasure over a deluxe pet-care station and ran an admiring finger over a gigantic Barbie castle. Meanwhile, I tried not to cringe looking at the prices.

"OK, Mommy, I know what I'm asking Santa for!" she announced happily. I braced myself for the damage. "I want a horse for my Barbies to ride on, a cupcake maker, and a jump rope!" she said. I stared at her, dumbfounded.

"That's it?" I said before I could stop myself. She nodded.

Somewhere, a bell rang. An angel got his wings. And three kings saw a star in the sky. Punky's list came in at well under $100, and that was a true Christmas miracle. With goodwill in my heart, I turned to Bruiser, who had toddled over to the table to join us. "And what do you want Santa to bring you, Bruiser?" I asked. The kid's mind was so malleable, this would be easy. "A teddy bear? Some race cars?"

"A Jeep! I want Santa bring me BIG JEEP!"

Oh, hell.



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