Lego, Consumerism and Christmas

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My son Luke turned twelve in November, and all he asked for was money to buy his coveted items in the Lego catalog. I have a problem with this consumeristic tendency of my offspring. Does he need more Legos? No. Does he want them? Oh, yes.

When Luke was younger he would occasionally convince random family members to buy him a little Lego toy here and there whenever they took him out. They’re cheap and he’s so happy and thankful. I put a stop to that telling him that he could only receive gifts (Lego or otherwise) at his birthday and Christmas. And if he secretly got things from people, then I would be sure to forbid any Lego presents at those holiday times. Knowing that the big, expensive sets came then, he quickly changed his begging ways. He started saving the catalogs instead.

At first this seemed like an improvement, but Luke would spend his free moments dreaming of all the Lego items he wanted. His stack of Lego “magazines” (really just advertisements of upcoming products) grew, and his mind was filled with the desire to have stuff. I was unsettled because I once did the same thing: keeping around catalogs of things I could never afford, circling, even cutting out my favorite items…for what? I was an adult, and when someone asked me what I wanted for the holidays I always asked for something practical that we could use as a family. But I secretly wanted to buy, buy, buy like many Americans.

One day I just threw out all the catalogs. I didn’t like that part of myself. If I needed something, I would remember it, I didn’t need a visually happy model showing me what I was lacking. I don’t miss them. Oh, I’ll flip through a Harry and David catalog and dream of trying all that yummy food. Gaiam is filled with sustainable stuff, still just stuff. I told my son he could only keep the latest catalog in the house. The rest would be recycled. He was upset; it was a fun pastime to dream of getting things, and Legos are his favorite things. But he did it. (I later found out a grandma took a few for him to keep at her house…)

His room is filled with Legos; no other toy comes close to his obsession with the products. But he uses them. They are not things that are purchased and then sit idle in a drawer. He makes stop motion animation with them, creates action set-ups to photograph, he engineers awesome contraptions and creatures constantly. Plus, there are much worse ways to spend free time than actively building something. And is it that much different than buying my daughter cloth and sewing supplies on a regular basis? I know I cannot change the lust for things; it’s a losing battle in our world. But I can set limits, and encourage using our things for creative purposes.

So, for Luke’s birthday my husband and I gave him BrickJournal– a non-Lego sponsored magazine. Its pages are about people using Legos (bricks) as art, or in education, or how to build really awesome designs with the bricks you already own. When he had his party with friends, he asked for money to buy Legos. With that money he bought several Christmas-themed sets and the advent calendar. Our piano looks festive and cute. He has daily excitement from his calendar. And he’s so happy and thankful; it’s hard to complain.

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37 thoughts on “Lego, Consumerism and Christmas

  1. Great post. We tend to get over run with the Lego magazines too, and I ended up throwing a bunch out when the boys were at school. They also get a weird connection to the boxes of their new sets. Those huge pictures of the creations are so mesmerizing. I have to throw those out too, when they are not around.

    I agree, it is a touch of consumerism, but like you, I’m thankful they are up in their play room, building, not becoming attached to a video game controller.

    Great post!

    judy

    1. Thanks!

      Yes, the boxes are coveted too! Especially the plastic frame things that go around the Bionicles. Luke was adamant that they were important to his play. Eventually, we chatted about space issues in his room, and he agreed to throw them out.

      Stuff!

  2. I think it is mean to deny your family members the pleasure of buying your son a gift once in a while, just because they feel like it.

  3. My son also has a passion for Legos. He plays with them everyday to the exclusion of any other toy. So we have stopped shopping for anything but Legos because I know they will get played with. I don’t have a problem with him receiving Legos as gifts or saving up his allowance to purchase more kits because I know they will get used. I have more of a problem with wanting the latest toy that is advertised on TV. Zhu Zhu Pets anyone?
    He keeps the catalogs and reads them faithfully. I believe that he improved his reading with them because for awhile that was all I could get him to read. I think restricting his Legos to only twice a year is somewhat excessive when he is obviously having so much fun with them.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this. My son, Luke is 6 and I can completely identify with everything you’re saying. For me, it may be too late for him and the consumerism compulsion I have given him surrounding his favorite toy.

  5. I used to love legos as much as your son when I was a kid. There’s something big about what I just said. I liked legos a lot when I was under the age of 10.

    You’ve got to be kidding me that your kid is playing with legos at the age of twelve and you find that acceptable.

    Have him join the boy scouts. Let him get into camping. Encourage him to get into sports. Let him turn into an athlete or a leader.

    The larger issue here isn’t that he saves catalogs; it’s that his mother is still encouraging him to stay a child.

    Heck, your kid is almost in middle school (or might be in middle school depending on your school district), and your son is still playing with children’s toys?

    1. I fail to see what’s so unacceptable about a 12 year old playing with Lego. I had both Lego and K’nex as a kid and routinely built stuff from both up to about the age of 15 when school work started taking over my time more.

      I’m 24 now, and I still play with the things at times. In fact I’m planning on liberating my K’nex from my cousins (who never use it).

      I think they’re wonderful toys, good for spatial awareness and construction skills, and very creative. Plus I find them quite sociable, if you’ve friends who are into them as well. I remember many enjoyable evenings with a couple of friends building intricate contraptions from K’nex.

      Besides, it’s possible to combine scouts or sport, or whatever, with time at home in which (in my opinion) it’s better that he’s playing with Lego, than sat playing computer games or staring at the TV.

    2. Really John?

      Please enlighten us the exact age (to the month would be helpful) that is too old to play with Legos. You seem to know it quite definitively.

      The problem here isn’t a mother treating a 12 year old like a child. The problem is that you think a 12 year old isn’t a child.

      Thank you for this post. Our five year old is Lego-obsessed. He got his first Lego catalog this year and spent hours looking over it. But we think Legos are a creative and good toy and so we don’t discourage his love for them. He would absolutely love a Lego Advent calendar but it would only feed the consumer side of his Lego frenzy so we aren’t getting it at this point.

      I completely understand helping your son to understand that it is not polite to ask/coerce people into buying you gifts. It’s a lesson we are trying to teach our son as well.

    3. John,

      I am 35, my oldest son is 10, and we build with LEGO all the time. It is my hobby, as well as his favorite toy. What changes with age is what and how you build. LEGO Technic are very good at teaching mechanics. LEGO Mindstorms is great for mechanics and programming. I personally enjoy building buildings, like my 4ft wide, 12,000 piece model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House. I truly hope my son and I never stop building LEGO together.

    4. My husband is 33 and still plays with Legos. Just because a child enjoys Legos doesn’t mean they’re lacking in anything else and it certainly doesn’t make them immature. In fact, I think Legos are an intelligent toy and spur creativity. A child can still go to Boy Scouts or camping or play outside while having Legos.

      I say let your child play with Legos for as long as possible. And I don’t see a problem with him reading catalogs about them. It encourages him to read and what’s wrong with being passionate about something? I also think it’s wrong to refuse to allow other people to buy him gifts of something he enjoys. If I could afford to buy my husband and son as many Legos as they wanted, I’d do it in a heart beat. It makes them both happy and it’s a learning toy for my son.

    5. I’m 13 and love lego. While in some aspects it is a childs toy, it is also an artistic medium. Brickartist.com Stopping someone from playing lego is like confiscating a child’s color pencils because he draws a lot and is always asking for paper and things to draw with.

  6. To counter rampant consumerism I brought my kids up having to save for the big items they really wanted. We’d put up part of the money, they had to work for the rest. Household chores were seperated between, this is stuff that has to be done, because you are a part of this household, and this is extra stuff that you can do that will earn you money. I found they appreciated those items more than their friends did for the toys that were simply given.

    In response to one of your commentors; I know of one friend, in his 50s, who still collects Lego, and at least once a year sets them up in wonderful displays to raise funds for charity. And another friend’s son who played with Lego through High School and is now studying to be an architecht. Not everyone marches to the beat of the same drum.

  7. I can totally understand this also, because both of my sons are Legoaniacs. The hardest thing with them is the begging at Walmart to buy some every time we are there. We try to teach them about saving, even to buy a bigger set, but they are not good at that yet.

  8. I can totally understand your son’s passion…I’m 33 and the best gift I can get is masses of LEGO.

    My 7 year old son has inherited this love and will, like his father and plenty other adult LEGO fans, carefully display his creations and shun all other “toys”

  9. This is so great to hear, my son’s the same way! He keeps the magazines forever and whenever a new one arrives he wants all of us to look at it with him and we have to pick out our favorite item on each page.

    I’m looking forward to Christmas break and playing with the legos with my son.

  10. Since when is a 12 year old not a child? This is the most concerning thing said. I have a 13 year old who still plays with many “childish”toys. Having a child being creative and imaginative is never a bad thing.

  11. I’m a 44 year old mom who is an AFOL (adult fan of Lego). I have my own collection in a locked room, my son has his own collection.
    I view Lego as a medium- like paint, clay, stone, fabric, or anything else an artist would use to create. I completely understand the buy, buy, buy thing and the not wanting to “consumerize” the kids. However, Lego is different. They’re much, much more than toys. What other product can teach architecture, mechanics, physics, mathematics, computer science (NXT/mindstorms) AND art- simultaneously?
    P.S. No, I don’t work for Lego. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I think Sharyn is right on: I also pay my son for the little extra things he does, and he saves up to buy more Legos. I think it’s a great real-world experience that mirrors what adults have to do every day to earn a living.

  12. To John, above,

    There is certainly no age limit on LEGO. As with Karen just before me, I’m a dad with LEGO as a hobby. I know many other adult hobbyists whose shared interest in LEGO has led them deeper into many other interests. For instance, I’ve been studying medieval literature for the sake of a LEGO project. I know others who have gained quite a bit of expertise in trains, or robots, or old movies, or whatever, as related to their hobby. Today as a PhD scientist, I credit my 3-D spatial skills in looking at the interactions of molecules, in part, to building with LEGO as a kid.

    As to your argument that the kid should get involved with Scouts or sports instead, I’ll just take myself as an example. I’m an Eagle Scout, former holder of pretty much every leadership position in my troop and in the OA. I never really got into sports, but was busy all through school with band, debate, church activity, etc. And along the way I was valedictorian. Fast forward to today, now I play LEGO with my own kids – in fact, they now get the collection that I had as a kid. I hope that they are involved in all sorts of activities as they get older – either the ones I did as a kid or whichever things excite them – but I also want to continue to build LEGO with them as long as they want.

    Bruce

  13. Lego is a different class of toy than most because it need not be “consumed.” Most toys get boring and eventually tossed. My son plays with the same Lego bricks that I played with as a child and the collection continues to grow. The fun of Lego is that you can dream up whatever world you want and populate it with characters and things. To me, this is a fundamental property of Lego. It is why I refuse to buy any of the licensed products. They strip away so much of the imaginative play. I love Lego. I love Star Wars. I really don’t like Lego Star Wars.

    On the subject of gifts and begging… I believe, and I try to teach my kids that the decision to give a gift always rests with the giver. One should never ask for, nor refuse, gifts. If gifts are purchased for a child because he asked for them, both the child and the giver should be reminded that this is inappropriate. If the gift is given freely, it should be accepted in the spirit in which it is given. If you will not use the gift, it is permissible to pass it along to charity or to someone who will use it.

  14. I don’t think what you describe is consumerism (or what I prefer to call “acquisitionism” because it’s about acquiring not consuming). What you describe doesn’t sound like “I have an XPhone 4 that does everything I need and a million things I don’t need, but the XPhone 4.1 just came out and I have to go stand in line to buy one because… well, it’s newer so it must be better.” You say your son is *producing* with the Legos. That’s an incredibly good thing versus the alternative of buying them only to leave them rotting in his room.

    You wondered if this was comparable to your daughter’s sewing. Yes, it is. Building and making things with Legos is your son’s sewing. Try to put it on a similar footing (and give it similar value).

    People who aren’t obsessed may be “normal” (whatever that is) and live happy lives, but they rarely produce anything that makes the world sit up and take notice. To be a dreamer and deal with all the crap the world dishes out to “not normal” people and keep your dream, you have to be obsessed. To deliver on your dream, you have to channel that obsession. (I hope I don’t need to go into that more with someone who wears a purple wig. ๐Ÿ™‚ )

    So, find ways to help him channel the obsession in positive directions and focus less on the things that bother you about it. Some thoughts, some of which might be old news for you…

    Why does he want that kit? Simply because it’s new? Or does he have plans for it? Or does he really like it because it’s neat? The latter two seem like good reasons to buy something–if he has the money.

    He’s made Lego decorations, could he make Lego gifts (preferably his own designs or customization of a stock design)? This helps move Legos out of the house. Giving is good. They’re potentially marketable. This also gives a quantifiable measure to validate buying more. You might use a modification of a tool like the stash game http://everythingyourmamamade.com/2008/09/02/stash-game/ to encourage him to consume more than he acquires by producing.

    Are his videos on YouTube? Is he getting feedback on them from an audience outside his family an friends? Is he really a filmmaker, SFX guy or model maker (or Mythbuster) waiting to grow out of a Legomanic? How can you encourage this angle if he’s really interested in it? Can you introduce non-Lego parts and props to expand his horizons in this area? Of course, before long he may want a better camera, lights, studio space…

    Has he submitted designs to any Lego magazines or web sites? Or any of his videos? Why not? (Could that be play to a homeschool assignment?)

    Why is he using paper catalogs when the web catalog has everything that’s available? (Looking at kits that don’t exist anymore isn’t worthwhile unless he plans to use the images as design guides for his own creations.) Instead of saying, “You can only spend X-hours per day looking at the catalog,” you can say, “You can spend X-hours per day on the web,” and teach him to manage his time to be able to do all the things he wants to do on the web. (Including posting videos, getting feedback, looking at other Lego sites, etc.)

    Hopefully, some of that is helpful.

  15. I really don’t understand your issue with him having catalogs. I have a 6 year old son, and he LOVES the Lego catalog (and any toy catalogs, for that matter).

    And, you know what? I encourage it. I do so, because I know that when he has birthday or Christmas money to spend, and we get inside Toys R Us or Target, he’ll be hit with a barrage of crappy, yet strategically placed toys that will try to steal his attention.

    All I do is remind him of what he was saving up for from the catalogs, and he makes a good purchasing decision.

    And, in reality, that’s what we want to teach our kids: save your money for what you really want (which turns into “need” when you’re an adult), and don’t waste your money on impulses and quick-fixes.

    One other issue I have with your post, is that you’re trying to compare your role as an adult, which is to be a caretaker and provider of needed items to your family. As a child, your role was different. It was to explore, enjoy, and want things. Yes, he can’t get everything he wants, but why impose your role as an adult on a child?

    My son wants things, and I don’t deny him that feeling of wanting something. Instead, we discuss the differences. For instance, for an entire month between Thanksgiving and Christmas (which also happens to be between his birthday and Christmas), all of his allowance goes towards Toys for Tots. He wants to spend his allowance, but he also knows that (for the most part) anything he asks for for Christmas, he’ll get. That isn’t so for every child, and my son now has a very strong grasp on that concept.

    Is he still allowed to “want” something? Yes. Did I rub his nose in the difference between “want” and “need” by throwing out all of his catalogs? Certainly not. But, does he understand the limits of wanting something as a result of donating his money to other kids, so they can have a chance to “want” (which is a luxury for kids, who should never have to worry about such things at such a small age)? Absolutely.

  16. I was one of those kids. Practically all my birthday and Christmas present requests were for LEGO. And naturally it didn’t stop when I “grew up” as I have taken a passion I love and turned it into not one, but two careers so far — LEGOLAND Master Model Designer and Freelance LEGO Artist and Author.

    Now my parents weren’t rich, but they did encourage me as much as they could. So instead of limiting my love of LEGO they taught me the values of hard work, saving up for bigger items and using my imagination to work with what I had.

    I don’t completely agree with this Mom’s views as her son may not be into consumerism so much as creativity. The more LEGO you have to play with, the more you can create. Yes, children can make impressive small things, but if they are encouraged and given the proper tools (i.e. more LEGO) they can become even more creative.

    LEGO is not like other toys, it lasts forever and can be passed on to younger generations. There is an entire LEGO Adult Fan Community all over the world. Because I am part of that community I have friends in many countries and share my creations with them online as well as at LEGO Conventions.

    Now I’m not saying that he will be a Master Model Builder, but he might. To me, acquiring more LEGO is less about the consumerism and more about having the freedom to create.

  17. This was great. I sent my son a link to this post as a discussion starter because we struggle with the exact same things. I especially appreciate the link to BrickLayer. I can’t stand the sell, sell, sell aspect of the Lego magazine.

  18. My son is 15 – definitely not too old for Legos (let’s leave the judgment behind, eh, John?). His fascination with building scenes from history has him not only studying different time periods for accuracy, but also building skills in photography as he documents his creations. He’s built a light box, taken a photography course, and participated in a charitable “Lego build” all because of his passion for this product.

    He has SO many Legos, but he continues to buy very specific pieces he needs/wants to complete projects. He uses his own money; his choice. I don’t see it so much as consumerism as following a passion. A chef needs ingredients and sometimes must run to the store for more; a Lego builder needs bricks.

    That said, when Christmas and birthdays come around, *sometimes we buy Legos, but happily, his interest in Legos has led him to other interests that we can encourage with non-Lego gifts.

  19. I’m 26 and love legos. And I’m a girl on top of that. Since legos are marketed primarily to boys I guess I’m am way beyond the realm of acceptable player. Just saying.

    On a slightly more mature note, I work at a hands-on science museum and we have several exhibits that utilize legos. One studies kinetic energy and friction, another works with structural stability and yet another focus on DNA. Yes DNA. Using legos you explain genetics. Four colors-four markers and endless patterns to compare. In fact several of our college educated adult employees will be attending classes to become Lego Educators to further our ability to introduce scientific concepts using the simplest little building blocks.

    All this recent Lego posting is sending me directly to the store for more legos.

    To Rebecca, I absolutely agree with you on the consumerism (or as one poignant commented put it, acquirism…I liked that.) my daughter is three and I am trying to encourage her to focus on the giving instead of the receiving babe. She starts on the want want want rants I redirect her. What would you like to give Mimi for Christmas? (Mimi is my mom) What are you going to get Phoebe? (the cat) and then I do my very best to help her fulfill those ideas. (this requires some ingenuity. For instance when she suggested she get Mimi an island we were able to satisfy that with a calendar with pictures of islands and beaches)

    I know I’ll have to adjust as she gets older but for now this technique is working for us.

  20. First of all, I’m so thankful to write for such a great community. I do believe if this post was in any other parenting site, I’d get more negative comments about Legos, instead of the amazing amount of you defending this passion.

    Second, I shared many comments with Luke, and he is just thrilled to hear from adults that understand where he’s coming from. And the encouragement (from an Lego designer!) to continue, made his day. I would be remiss as a parent if I didn’t include links to his Lego animation videos (made when he was 10):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlIL_eTNqrI

    And finally, I believe strongly that all toys can be tools for development of many skills. Here’s my post about using Lego NXT for soccer bots at a college:
    http://www.wired.com/geekmom/2010/11/soccer-legos-robots-oh-my/

    However,every family has a line they draw where enough is enough. I don’t mean playing with Legos- but buying them. I’m happy when Luke has a specific design in mind and goes to bricklink.com to purchase used Legos with his own money. That’s supplying his creativity. Begging for the latest kit is about “aquirism” (excellent term) and I will continue to limit that to a few special times of the year.

    I appreciate all your comments, and although I don’t build with Legos myself, this purple-hair (thanks for noticing) musician fully understands being obsessed with cool things.

  21. Rebecca, I completely understand where you’re coming from about drawing the line and I got the impression the limits were coming more from his asking at inappropriate times (My wife’s family does “coming to see ya” presents and I still don’t get that) and my son’s famous for doing the same with his Transformers. He’s quite the charmer and knows to start small and work his way up with requests.

    I’m our house’s main Lego fan; and for the record, I never had them as a kid and ONLY got into them seriously as an adult. Now, I help run a convention each year. I recently gathered up my ENTIRE collection to sort and store it properly. The process took me about 3 months and filled around 8 30-gallon rubbermaid containers with bagged Lego. Then my wife came across two more bins I hadn’t sorted in the back of the closet. Yet it’s easy for me to be tempted by a good sale or hard to find set. I have to actively avoid the local LEGO store or I get myself in trouble. This is what we’re trying to teach our kids, you with “No Lego requests outside of the big gift holidays” and me with premptive “We’re walking in this store, yes you can look, but no, we’re not getting anything.” speeches. Some dads show buying habits with tools, electronics or sports memerobelia , I show it with toys.

    When they do get things, like this time of the year, my wife and I are ready with the “OK time to figure out what fits in the room and what we don’t play with anymore” and off we go to the thrift store with a donation (Mom and Dad also purging, trying to set that example.)

    Good article and tell your son they’re great movies!

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