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.
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.”
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.”
But that doesn’t mean your kid won’t be bummed when one of their wish list items doesn’t make the cut. If your child seems disappointed or ungrateful, it’s key for the stressed-out parent (who may have been up all night putting together that complicated My Pretty Pony Playhouse with the inadequate Allen wrench provided) to not blow a fuse. “It’s important to accept that’s how they feel,” says Doherty. “Don’t make the mistake of saying they should just be grateful for what they got or not feel envious. That’s like saying ‘Don’t be a child.’”
Even though you may not feel like hearing it before coffee on Christmas morning, the goal is for your child to be able to express his feelings and to learn how to deal with them. Fred Zelinger agrees that parents should talk about a child’s feelings of disappointment. “Talking always helps,” he says. “A parent has to be ok with any feeling the kids has. They have to be able to just listen. Don’t try to talk them out of the feelings. Just looking at the child and showing you understand is therapeutic.” Chances are, the kid will end up loving the toy or book or bag of socks they were disappointed in. (Actually, scratch that last one.)
Unhappiness can also ensue when your child compares her gifts with a friend whose parents went completely overboard with presents. In that case, it’s time for another little chat with your little one about coping with that keeping-up-with-the-Joneses feeling. “We set the tone for how kids respond,” says Londoño-McConnell. She suggests pointing out that, in your family, there are other important things that matter more than presents. Remind your child that the family spent an evening together baking cookies, playing in the snow or volunteering at a food bank or soup kitchen. “Put it in perspective,” says Londoño-McConnell.
How to teach gratefulness
The antidote to ingratitude? Teaching your kid about giving as well as receiving. Londoño-McConnell suggests having your child pick out a gift for a less fortunate child and if possible, delivering it in person. Fred Zelinger recommends that if a child gets two gifts, he should pick out two to give away. “I would want the child to actually do that donating themselves—to go a firehouse or a toy drop or center, somewhere they accept a gently used item,” he says. “The act of giving teaches them gratitude.”
Studies show that expressing gratitude is key to lasting happiness. To help teach your child to be more thankful, Londoño-McConnell suggests “have the kids open gift one at a time and then thank that person if they’re present. A lot of times they don’t know who gave them what. That is another way for kids to take things in during the frenzy of opening presents.”
Instilling your children with gratefulness and appreciation helps them keep their expectations in check and enjoy the gifts they receive. After all, gifts are a bonus—not necessarily a given. “We want to work against the entitlement thing of ‘Hey, I’m a kid—the adults are providers of goods and services to me… and that’s their job,’” says Doherty. Adds Laurie Zelinger, “A gift is not something that’s deserved; a gift is something that someone wanted to give you.”
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