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KIDS AS EDUCATED CONSUMERS? HO HO HO

'Tis the week before Christmas and I'm wandering the exotic and bewildering aisles of Toys R Us, waving my magic wand.

I wave it over the bar code of a Power Talker Voice Changing Mask. Zap! I pass it by the brow of a virtual pet. Zap! I move onward and upward to a Star Wars Gift Set. Zap! Zap!

This thing in my hand is not, strictly speaking, a magic wand. It's an electronic scanner. Nor is it, strictly speaking, for anyone in my age category no matter how much I might like a virtual pet -- named Buddy of course.

What I have here is the latest, most seductive gift-gouging gadget created since children began wanting more for Christmas than their two front teeth. With this zap gun, even those too young to e-mail the North Pole can now graze through Toys R Us adding every whim, fantasy and passing desire onto their personal list at the gift registry. They even get a printout to send to Grandma!

Gift registries for kids? What we have here in the aisles between Anastasia's Dress Up Set and Tinkerbell's Face Paints is the latest in the long, desultory and wildly successful process of turning a child's wonder into demand, and surprise into entitlement.

OK, OK. I will refrain from ranting about the commercialization of Christmas. In return, allow me to rant about the way the marketplace has turned kids into short consumers and how this has affected giving and getting.

It's more than a generation since television first eliminated the middleman -- the parent -- and began advertising directly to kids. Today kids see roughly 20,000 TV ads a year. They also have schoolbooks with ads, T-shirts with ads, Web sites with ads. The entire movie industry has become a product tie-in.

It's not just Mouseketeer ears and Pop Tarts anymore. Kids are being marketed TV dinners, electronics, fast-food restaurants and even family vacations. We are told by Consumer Reports that children are choosing how to spend $15 billion a year.

What makes the gift registry new and appalling is that it eliminates even the pretense of parental screening. As Sue Edelman, a self-described trend tracker for Big Blue Box, says, "Kids don't even have to nag." They scan it and they get it.

I am not faulting Toys R Us for this entire cultural scam. Many customers are dreaming of an efficient Christmas, not a white one. The kids' gift registry, like all the other registries from the prenatal to the bridal, is pragmatic and efficient. It eliminates risk and returns.

But it assumes that kids, like brides, know what they want and should get what they want. In that sense, it's part of the dubious economic "emancipation" of children who are expected to be competent consumers before they are third-graders.

There is a kind of uneasy role-reversal going on in wish lists, electronic or not. "We are asking them what they want us to buy them," says Ellen Wartella of the University of Texas. "We're pushing them into the position of consumers. Is this a role we want them to be in at such an early age?"

In this upside-down world, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles don't give personal gifts; they become personal shoppers.

Somewhere deep down where the electronic scanners don't reach, the kids-as-Christmas-consumers makes everybody uncomfortable. We still harbor the fantasy of presents carefully chosen and gratefully received. We believe in generosity and gratitude, not obligation and expectations.

In the classic Christmas story, a young husband sells his watch to buy a present for his wife's hair. The wife sells her hair to buy him a watch chain. What on earth would Toys R Us make of O. Henry's tale? A couple of sorry losers who end up at the return counter?

Forgive me for this holiday dis-spirit. But the idea of kids roaming the toy jungle with zap guns hunting their own presents brings out my inner Grinch. It makes me long for the days when kids worried about being naughty or nice. Ah yes, Santa. Now there was a guy who really knew how to scan.

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