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I was going over my holiday shopping list (yellow sweater, new toys for Winston Beagle …) when I started thinking about all the things I used to want as a kid. The “what do you want for Christmas holiday sweepstakes” was an intense game of brinkmanship in my family.

I’d always start big, something in the $50 dollar range. Mom and Dad would counter with how it was too expensive and how I’d get bored of it in a month. We’d move on to bargaining and guilt tripping. Good grades vs. habitual messiness, etc. … In the end, I always got something good but never the outrageous present I wanted initially. Now I’m grateful for getting presents at all, but as a kid, when you really want something, that is the consuming desire of your life. I remember that one Christmas, as far as I was concerned, the world would end if I didn’t get the Ghostbuster’s Proton Pack.

I ended up getting the stupid ghost trap and utility belt. To my general displeasure, the world went on. If only I had realized back then how much grown-up Christmas presents cost, I could totally have guilt tripped my parents. In a world where scarves cost upwards of $75, how can you not give a kid a $50 Proton Pack?

I brought this up with some friends at dinner the other night.

“Think about all the presents you ever wanted as a kid but never got,” I said. “The money you’d spend during one Friday night on the town could easily buy them all. I’m talking Proton Pack, home laser tag kit, the outrageous Nerf guns. Think how many micromachines you could buy instead of $10 martinis.”

“Yeah, but those toys are just cheap pieces of plastic,” one of my friends said.

“Yeah, but when you’re a kid, it’s so much more,” I said. “It’s a backpack that lets you fight ghosts. That’s the equivalent of a Porche to a kid.”

“I’d buy my kids the Proton Pack,” another replied.

“Yeah, but you’d do that just so you could compensate for your own childhood disappointment and that’s what bad parents do,” I countered.

“Nah, I’d buy it for him just so I could play with it vicariously.”

The thing is, none of us got the Proton Pack, except for that one kid on the street. He had the Proton pack, and the rest of us had those stupid ghost traps. Did our parents just not want us crossing streams or something? Or was there a neighborhood pact between parents to fool kids into believing that toys were more expensive than they really were?

Could there have been something deeper involved? I mean we all hated that kid who got whatever he wanted. We’d go over to his place, play his Neo Geo and then talk crap about him afterwards. Nobody wants to be that kid. Is that what our parents were thinking? Maybe they just wanted to teach us about jealousy and scorn at a really early age.

As a semi-adult now, I’m still struggling with the parental reasoning involved here. $50 dollars is not an absurd amount of money. I know you should always teach your kids about the value of money, how to save, and how to not be a spoiled brat, but I can’t do that with a straight face. Considering the things I buy myself now, I’d be the biggest hypocrite in the world. How can I deny my kid a $50 present when I spend that much on dinner without batting an eyelash? The last thing I want to do is lie to my kid to justify something.

And yet I know one day, when my kid asks me if he can have the big Power Wheels thing for Christmas, there’s no way he’s getting it. It’s not because the toys are too expensive or I’m trying to teach him about being frugal. Nor is it because I don’t want him to end up as “that kid.”

It’s mostly that, well, I never got the Proton Pack and I ended up all right. Sure I pouted for a few days about my lack of ghost fighting ability. But you know what? I bet within a few weeks, I was back to tossing a ball in the yard. It’s only now about 20 years later that I even thought of it again. (Now that’s a latent memory!)

What’s more, now that I think about it, had I gotten the Proton Pack, I would’ve zapped ghosts for a few weeks, gotten bored, and gone back to tossing a ball. It was, after all, just a cheap plastic backpack. And now as I’m browsing through this year’s Nieman Marcus Christmas catalog, looking at all of the absurd things I want, that same thought strikes me. Do I want those silver cufflinks? Yes. Do I really need them? Of course not. Will the world end if I don’t get silver cufflinks? Probably not.

Maybe my parents were on to something.