Is it just my dysfunctional family or do others make lottery tickets part of the Christmas tradition?

When the gift exchange is hours away and just looking for a parking place at the mall could waste 30 minutes, you head to the nearest gas station or a grocery store for a gift that might spread hope, joy and wealth -- at least until it's scratched off. I love the Minnesota lottery until I scratch off 20 losers and the obsessive-compulsive in the clan gets out the dust buster to whoosh away the messy gray matter.

Better heads prevail at the Northstar Problem Gambling Alliance and the Minnesota State Lottery. They want to remind parents, well-intentioned uncles and aunts, older sibs and friends not to give lottery tickets to anyone under 18. Research shows that the earlier that children begin gambling, the more likely they are to develop gambling habits as adults.

In a 2007 study that analyzed youth gambling in Minnesota, 16 percent of ninth grade boys and 3 percent of ninth grade girls were gambling weekly or daily. The most common form of gambling was playing cards for money, said Randy Stinchfield, also from the University's Medical School's Department of Psychiatry.

Still, a fair number of ninth graders are playing lottery tickets, which they usually get from their parents, said Don Feeney, research and planning director at the Minnesota State Lottery. "It's a bad idea and it's not legal," he said. Lottery players must be 18 or older to buy or cash in tickets in Minnesota.

The adolescent brain isn't fully developed, particularly the part that allows us to make responsible judgments, said Dr. Ken Winters of the University of Minnesota Medical School Department of Psychiatry. "Activities like gambling can be particularly dangerous for adolescents. Parents are taking a risk when they allow their children to gamble," said Winters.

Stinchfield said that when parents give gambling-related gifts to children, they are in essence saying, "This is a safe thing for you to do." While gambling is harmless entertainment for most people, it does come with some risk.

If lottery tickets make it in to the gift pile, consider it a teachable moment for teens. Adults need reminding that winning $10 on a scratch-off means something quite different to a 30-year-old and a 13-year-old, Feeney said. The 30-year-old might think that he won this time but will probably lose the next time. He might have a stack of 14 losers next to one winner. Teachable moment? He's down $5. Winning $10 means more to a 13-year-old, but he or she might not recognize the odds of winning again. That can lead to excessive gambling, Feeney said.

According to Feeney, 25 percent of all the tickets sold for the Minnesota Millionaire Raffle scratch off are purchased as gifts. Scratch-off ticket sales increase 20 percent from November to December. Even if you're scratching lottery cards off the list, Super America has plenty of gift cards and ice scrapers for the lame -- er, last-minute -- shopper.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or If you spot a deal, share it at