Holiday Gifts for Kiddos: How to Find the Perfect Balance (Updated 2021)

Ah.  The holiday gifts conundrum.  Every year, Hubby and I swear we will not overdo it.  And every year we THINK we are succeeding.  But, I am -- right this second -- looking at my tree, and the presents are quite literally spilling out, covering our floor like a mudslide.  Yesterday, I heard my little guy counting his.  He happily proclaimed "ten!" and my head swiveled in shock.  Clearly that can't be right.  We weren't going to overdo it this year!  And that doesn't even include the gifts he'll get from Santa and our extended family.  GULP!

A lot of families, like mine, "struggle" (I am ashamed to write that word in this context) with conflicting pulls at Christmas (or any other holiday that involves gift-giving).  We want to make the holidays magical for our little ones, but don't want the receipt of presents to be the focus.  We want to teach the true meaning of the holiday, whether that is religious-based or simply the concept of giving, but we talk about Santa and wishlists, about our kiddos asking for and getting gifts.  We want to give everything we can to our children, but we don't want to raise entitled, spoiled kids who are so overwhelmed the morning of that they don't value or appreciate any of it.  

So how do we manage gift-giving holidays for kiddos?   How do we balance what we can do with what we should do when it comes to gift-giving and raising good humans?

Teach Them To Give

Did you know that human development studies establish that, although kids associate the holidays with receiving gifts, it is gift giving that reaps the biggest psychological rewards?  Here's why:

1.  Gift giving builds empathy. We can help children pick meaningful presents for others that the recipients would really appreciate.  In doing so, we can teach children to put themselves in someone else's shoes, to imagine what would be meaningful to that person based on what that person might love or need. 

2.  Gift giving is an act of kindness.  When children participate in gift selection and purchase, we teach them that love and thought go into a present.  We think about what someone needs, what someone dreams about or hopes for, what might help them or improve their life.  And by selecting meaningful gifts, we show kids we are trying to do something thoughtful and kind for the recipient.  This can go a long way in helping little ones understand the significance behind the gifts they personally receive.

3.  Gift giving teaches appreciation.   It is so important to appreciate what we have and the good things in our lives.  According to a Harvard study, gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.  When children participate in gift giving, they can experience another's gratitude and appreciation.  This helps them learn how good it feels to be thanked or appreciated, which may help them remember to show gratitude for what they receive

4.  Gift giving increases well-being. Devoting personal resources on behalf of others has been found to be one of the most important predictors of satisfaction and well-being.

Honor Your Traditions & Beliefs or Make New Ones

A good way to add meaning to the holidays beyond "getting presents" is to teach your little ones about your family's beliefs, traditions and/or faith.  In our family, we celebrate Christmas.  As such, we celebrate our traditions and faith by singing Christmas carols, attending Christmas services, and using an Advent scripture calendar (where you read short Children's Bible stories, culminating in the birth of Jesus).  We also try to celebrate the traditions and faiths of others.  For example, we have celebrated Hannukah several times with family friends who are Jewish.  We read age-appropriate children's books about Kwanza and other celebrations as well.  

Not all of family traditions are religious-based, of course.  For example, one of our favorite family traditions is going to see the Nutcracker with Nana.  We also sponsor families in need, decorate cookies, make Gingerbread houses, and decorate our home just a few lightbulbs short of the Griswold home.  

No matter what your believe, by incorporating old traditions or finding new ones to make your own, you can teach your littles there is more to whatever you celebrate than just opening gifts.

Incorporate Philanthropy

Another way to start kids thinking beyond their own presents is to incorporate some level of philanthropy into the holiday season.  Doing something philanthropic as a family can help introduce your little ones to the concepts of helping others and appreciating what you have.  You can sponsor a family in need, buy gifts from a giving tree tag, host a neighborhood or social media drive (food, coats, gifts, books, diapers, warm socks, shoes - there is need for it all), drop some money in the Salvation Army box - there are so many options.  Whether you give a little or a lot is up to you, but know anything you do makes a difference.  

Make Your Giving Meaningful

The reality, is we (my family) will always want to give presents and make the holiday as magical as possible for our little ones.  But I do want there to be some balance.  In thinking of ways to accomplish that, I started reading articles and asking parents I know whether and how others balance what they can do against what they should do when it comes to giving gifts to their kiddos.  It seems I am not the only one who worries about it.  While there are different ways to do so, it seems the general consensus is to make your gifts to your kiddos meaningful.  Here are some ways others try to do this.

Some follow the "Four Gifts" format.  As the name implies, parents trying to do this buy each kid four gifts: "one you want, one you need, one you wear, and one you read."   Not only does this format limit the number of gifts, once children are old enough to ask for things, it helps them discern between need and want and, when it comes to wants, to prioritize.  

Several families limit their gifts to experiences.  Some gift an experience to the entire family.  For example, the one present they receive may be a family vacation, a family outing or activity, or tickets to show.  All other presents come from their extended family and friends, except for Santa's.  Others give experiential gifts to each individual, like tickets to see Disney On Ice for one kiddo and tickets to see Paw Patrol for another. 

One mama I talked to found that what works best for her family is to buy everything she and her husband want to give their kids.  They wrap it all and put it under the tree – all to be unwrapped that morning.  After the gifts are unwrapped, they tell each child to pick two gifts to keep out for the day.  The rest they store for a different day, which often ends up being weeks and months down the road when the kids finally remember they exist.  The parents like this approach because the kids seem to value and care for the presents more and the "gifts keep on giving" through June.

Some families focus on gifts they make.  We do a hybrid version of this.  For example, while we also gift store-bought items, our little guy makes presents (sometimes ornaments, sometimes art, sometimes special cards) to give to family members and teachers.  He sees Nana and I doing the same. 

Another inspiring idea was giving the gift of service.  The gift is a promise to help the gift recipient with a project of the recipient’s choosing.  When it comes to ways kids can be of service, you will be surprised at how much they can do.  Maybe their gift to you is coloring pictures for people in senior centers, or "helping" shovel a neighbor's sidewalk, or sharing their special toy with a sibling without complaining.  Now that our little guy is no longer an infant, we have started incorporating some age-appropriate version of this into his gift-giving.

Set Boundaries

 It is 100% ok to say no, or say something is too expensive, or say that a particular gift is off-limits.  This teaches your kiddo that there are limits and that he or she is not entitled to whatever he or she wants.  And it is perfectly acceptable to set those boundaries with others purchasing for your child. 

If you have decided to have Santa come to your home, the same rules apply to Santa notwithstanding his magical capabilities and elf-made gifts.  In our home, we tell our little fella that Santa always respects our rules and if he (our child) asks for something we wouldn't want him to have, Santa won't bring it.  It never occurred to me that we would have to have the conversation, but, when he was two, our little guy told me he wanted to ask Santa for a cell phone.  We explained that while Santa could do it, he would never do so because Santa knows his daddy and I don't want him having a cell phone at two years old.

So back to my original question.  How can we best manage gift-giving holidays for kiddos?  Ultimately, it comes down to doing what feels right for your family. That may take trial and error to figure out.  And it certainly takes some thoughtful consideration.  In the meantime, the holiday is nearly upon us.  Enjoy the season and all it means for your family. 

Wishing you and yours a safe and joyous holiday season.  All the best in the upcoming year!

For tips on how to manage your child's gift expectations, click here.  For more information on how to avoid raising entitled children, click here.  

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