Are You Going Overboard With Gifts?

Find the perfect balance between spoiling your children and having them be appreciative of the presents they receive.

Are You Going Overboard With Gifts?

As you’re pushing a loaded shopping cart around Toys "R" Us, you’re probably wondering: Is there such a thing as too many gifts? What’s the right number of presents to give my kid so that he or she will feel appreciative and not deprived?

It’s a tough call, because—as with tipping—there is no right answer. Every situation is different. Some families (a lot of families) are stretching the household budget to its limits, especially when it comes to holiday shopping. That may be because parents are trying to make up for all the gifts they didn’t get when they were little or because they’re busy keeping up with the neighbors. So what’s the happy gift-giving medium?

For starters, the clearest sign that you’ve overdone it is when you go above and beyond the reality of your finances. “It’s too much when you’re going to go into debt to get the kids what they want,” says Angela Londoño-McConnell, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Athens, Georgia.

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When there are financial constraints, it’s important to prepare your family ahead of time, according to William Doherty, Ph.D., a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. “The big thing is to have this conversation early enough in the season, where you can say ‘There’s less money this year’ or ‘We’re being more careful with money,’” suggests Doherty. Obviously, you should tailor the message to the age of your child. He suggests volunteering that you yourself are cutting down on grown-up presents.  “Older kids are perfectly able to understand that,” he says. And, with kids of any age, you can emphasize that “‘it’s going to be a good holiday or birthday, but we’re going to do less than last year.’”

While there’s no bell curve showing when the right number of gifts tips into excess, according to Londoño-McConnell, “you do lose perspective in the frenzy of gift opening. What do you want next if you get everything? What could satisfy you? Where do you go from there? Not having everything gives you the hunger to work for it, to save your money if you didn’t get it.” She points out that it’s never too early to teach your child “money sense.” “It’s the nature of kids to want everything they see, but it doesn’t mean they should get it,” says Londoño-McConnell.

Adds Dr. Doherty, “you reach a point of satiation or overdose. The big thing I get concerned about in a consumer culture like ours is that kids come to feel entitled to exactly what they want and as much as they want.”

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Manage your child’s great expectations

One way to handle children’s expectations is to make a gift list (and check it, you know...). The key is to convey to your kids that this is a wish list—not a guaranteed shopping list. “If, historically, the parents got everything on the list, they set the expectation that it’s not a wish list but a ‘This is what I’m gonna get list,’” says Londoño-McConnell. Instead, have your kids circle things they want in catalogs and then explain to them that you’ll add it to the list but you’re not making any promises.

To ensure your child is getting the gift he truly covets, you could ask your kid to make several lists in the weeks leading up to the holidays and see which presents keep making a comeback, suggests Dr. Laurie Zelinger, a licensed child psychologist in Cedarhurst, New York. She also suggests sub-dividing the list into categories: expensive, inexpensive, activities (such as an ice-skating trip or Disneyland), and “parents’ choice,” which is a wild card—whatever the parent (or aunt or grandpa) chooses. Her husband, licensed psychologist Dr. Fred Zelinger, thinks this is an opportunity to teach a child about choices. “If they create a list,” he says, “and a parent goes through it and gives them the choice of one or another item, it’s letting them be empowered and a part of the decision-making.”

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