THIS IS THE TIME of year I dread.

Soon I will hardly be able to walk in our walk-in closet - so full will it be of toys and other gifts to be wrapped for the holidays.In the next month, most of us will be contributing to the $17.5 billion in sales expected by the toy industry this year.

Spending on toys has soared - more than 260 percent since the $6.7 billion Americans spent in 1980, and that figure doesn't even include video games. Price and population increases account for some of this rise. But the increase is mainly the result of the sale of more toys.

Advertising has surely sparked demand. Since the mid-1950s, toy companies have known that they can reach adults through television ads directed at children.

In 1993, $790.4 million was spent on toy advertising, an increase of 356 percent since 1983. Many parents buy TV toys so that their children don't feel left out when other children display their trophies on the bus or in the neighborhood.

But parents aren't forced to buy. In fact, studies show that even children grow cynical about toy ads by the time they reach the primary grades. No, adults spend because they want to.

Two-thirds of the toys sold are purchased in the last six weeks of the year, overwhelmingly by parents and relatives eager to please children. The psychologist Marilyn Bradford found that preschoolers asked for only an average of 3.4 toys during the holidays while they received 11.6. Other studies show that older children wanted more toys than younger children did.

When the young are given more toys than they ask for, they might reasonably expect more the next year.

Inevitably, many parents vicariously consume luxury when they indulge their offspring with piles of presents that they didn't have as children. But the matter goes much further than the display of affluence. It arises from the changes in the American family.

In double-income households, parents may buy toys to ease their anxiety about spending less time than they would like with their children. The steep rise in the percentage of working mothers with preschoolers - increasing from 11.9 percent in 1950 to 58.9 percent in 1991 - is merely one sign. Divorced parents may compete for love and loyalty.

And when grandparents shower their grandchildren with gifts, they may be making up for what they feel they could not give their children. Or they are trying to compensate for the fact that they have so little contact with them, compared with families in generations past. Increasingly, the generations are separated as young parents are obliged to move from hometowns.

When it comes down to it, we use gifts as a substitute for real contact with children.