I have a smattering of childhood memories involving a beautifully lit Christmas tree straining to contain an ocean of gifts beneath it.
Our parents made us wait behind an invisible line before releasing us to open the presents. Thirteen minutes later, the room was littered with paper and a hint of disappointment when all they were trying to do was bring us joy.
Now that I can create my own traditions with my kids, I am eager to reshape that scenario. My husband and I try to shun materialism, but we are secretly terrified of disappointing our children with too few presents and our best intentions and budgets end up being blown year-after-year.
In the moment, overloading a child with too many gifts makes it impossible to actually savor them. It also encourages demand and expectation—which often leads to tears and frustration on days that are supposed to be otherwise joyous. After more failed attempts and dollars spent than I care to admit, we are more determined than ever to shift the highlight of the holidays away from gifts.
After more failed attempts and dollars spent than I care to admit, we are more determined than ever to shift the highlight of the holidays away from gifts.
Sharon Peters, Brooklyn-based family coach and founder of Parents Helping Parents, says that there is no magic number of gifts that parents should give. How many presents to bestow a child is a personal decision that each family needs to make based on their values and budget.
Ms. Peters stresses that what children desire more than material possessions is attention from their parents. She encourages adults to start setting gift expectations early, while soliciting participation from the whole family on what the holiday experience will look like beyond wish lists and presents.
“There is so much societal pressure on parents to shower their children with gifts over the holidays. Sure, gifts are fun and we all love them. But it isn’t likely that children will treasure for a lifetime the presents they received as much as they will their family rituals,” said Peters.
“As a first step, well in advance of whatever holiday a family celebrates, parents can sit down with their children and help them prioritize their wish lists and remind them then that the holiday is not about getting every item.” There will likely be a desire or two that your child has previously mentioned or an idea you’ve had in mind and if a family can afford them, these are the selections to focus on.
“Parents need to trust that their undivided attention is more valuable to their children than gifts”
Ms. Peters also encourages families to institute rituals that don’t have to cost much, if anything. For instance, the entire family can participate in creating a calendar for the month with special dates set aside to play games together, bake and cook, or go to the movies.
“Parents need to trust that their undivided attention is more valuable to their children than gifts,” added Peters. “If children perseverate over not getting the right gifts or enough of them, there is something else going on—perhaps at school or with friends—and it suggests that they are not feeling connected.”
These negative reactions are indicators that children need their parents’ time, not necessarily the latest gadget.
Similar to setting expectations for children well in advance of the holidays, Ms. Peters recommends doing the same for eager grandparents. “While many grandparents feel they have earned the right to indulge their beloved grandchildren with many packages, it shouldn’t mean that the gifts wreak havoc on the family. Ideally, adult children can meet with their parents face-to-face and gently request that their gifts not exceed a certain dollar amount and are age appropriate.”
If, however, a parent-grandparent relationship is strained, it is a judgement call that only the parent can make. Peters added that sometimes it might be best to say nothing and to tuck inappropriate gifts away for another time.
Inspired by Sharon’s advice, I sat down with my family to plan our twelfth Christmas together and we prioritized a handful of activities intended to prolong the holiday spirit beyond thirteen minutes of gift opening. We instituted holiday movie night every Friday in December, we scheduled a pizza tree-trimming party with each child’s best friend, and we are going to have an appetizers-only dinner on Christmas Eve. Each activity is on the calendar with pertinent details and none of them costs more than a few bucks.
With a little planning, gift overloading can retreat from the holiday limelight and be replaced with ritualized time together as a family. A win-win situation for kids and our wallets.
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Mariko Zapf is a Brooklyn-based writer with a passion for parenting and healthy living. Her byline has appeared in Woman’s Day, Runner’s World, Organic Life, and Yahoo, among others.
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