Moms and child psychologists tell Moneyish their tips to managing children’s expectations over Hanukkah and Christmas.
You won’t spoil the holidays if you don’t spoil your kids.
Meghan Brunson, a Phoenix mother of four girls ages 2 to 10, worried her two oldest would be disappointed four years ago when she pared the pile of presents down from around 10 apiece to the “rule of 4” being adopted by many parents: One gift they want, one gift they need, one gift to wear and one gift to read.
“Less really was more. The kids actually had a more enjoyable holiday than years when we spoiled them,” Brunson, 34, assured Moneyish. She plans to spend about $1,000 total on her girls, and has found it’s much easier to stick to a budget by limiting herself to four presents per kid. “They really played with those things, and they used them more, compared to when they’d get 12 things and they’d get bored with half of them after a couple of days.”
She’s got science on her side. A new study being published in the journal Infant Behavior and Development found that toddlers with fewer toys were more creative and focused than those pawing through more playthings. When University of Toledo researchers gave tots under age 3 either four toys or 16, those with just a couple of toys played with individual items longer, “allowing better focus to explore and play more creatively,” researchers wrote, concluding that fewer toys “promotes development and healthy play.”
Jennifer Nevins, a New York mother who blogs about creating family memories on Savor.us, says she also has to moderate how she gifts her three kids ages 8, 10 and 13 over eight nights of Hanukkah. “There’s sort of an expectation that there will be a present every night. But that doesn’t mean that every night you’re getting the Lego Death Star,” she told Moneyish, noting she spends $150-$250 per child. “My kids generally get to choose one bigger gift, and then we supplement with smaller things.”
And that all adds up. Moms and dads spent $422 per kid on average last year, with a third dropping $500 on each child aged 8 to 14, according to T. Rowe Price’s Parents, Kids & Money Survey.
That’s partly because 66% of surveyed parents said their kids expected to get everything they wanted. And many of today’s high-tech toys can run in the hundreds of dollars, like the $130 FurReal Friends Roarin’ Tyler the Playful Tiger topping many toy lists this year.
New York mom Amy Chen learned this the hard way last year when she got her tech-obsessed 10-year-old son a 3D printer. “He used it two or three times, and now it’s a $200 brick that’s just sitting on his desk,” Chen, 58, told Moneyish. “This year he wants a Lumio lamp from MoMA (which runs $165 to $198) but we’re going to have a conversation first about what happened with the printer, and get a handle on why he wants this particular brand, and this particular model, and what he really plans to use it for.”
Sometimes, it’s guilt that pushes many parents to over-give,“especially if they’re worried that they haven’t spent enough time around their children this year, or they want to give their children more than they had growing up,” Dr. Robin H. Gurwitch, clinical psychologist at Duke University Medical Center and the Center for Child and Family Health, told Moneyish.
The good news: “This is a great time of year to help your kids become grateful children who appreciate what they have, which is one of the best gifts you can give,” said Dr. Gurwitch.
She and other parents and experts shared their tips to saying “no” without ruining the holidays.
Start managing expectations early. “It is really important for families with older, school-age children to sit down and say, ‘Hey, let’s talk about Christmas or Hanukkah this year,” said Dr. Gurwitch. Avoid saying things like “we can’t afford this,” which could make kids stress about their financial security. Try, “We’re going to downsize a bit with presents because we’re saving for a vacation,” or, “We want to make sure we can take care of the things we need all year.”
Explain your family’s rules are different from other families. If your child believes in Santa, who “should” be able to procure anything, Dr. Gurwitch suggests responding that, “Santa checks with parents before he chooses what gifts to bring you, and he picks things based on where we live and what’s important to us.” That’s what Brunson does. “We’ve asked Santa only to bring these four gifts, and we let him know if certain things — like hoverboards! — are off-limits,” she said.
Don’t have them pick from a catalog. Dr. Lauren Knickerbocker, child psychologist at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Health, asks her 3-year-old son to tell her what he wants off the top of his head. “Instead of having the toy catalog put ideas into his head, we get these fantastic requests like ‘an alligator that talks to me’ that are much more creative,” she said. And ask why your child wants something – do they want a tablet for homework or making home movies, or do they want a $329 iPad just because it’s an iPad?
Get the grandparents onboard. When Chen initially waffled over whether to get her son the 3D printer last year, he responded, “Fine. Grandma will get it for me.”
“That was a little too flippant, so we had to have a talk with grandma about what to get him,” Chen said.
On the flip side, if one of Nevin’s kids wants something like a pricey pair of Vans sneakers or an iPad, she gets the grandparents and aunts to go in on it together. “I’m raising my kids to be sensitive about money and aware of how lucky they are, and our family is on the same page.”
Substitute toys with experiences. When you think back to your childhood holidays, do you recall the actual gifts? Or are your clearest memories really lighting the menorah, or decorating the Christmas tree? “Add family activities to the wish list, like having a snowball fight, building a snowman outside, or playing a game together as a family,” said Dr. Gurwitch. “Explain that there might be fewer presents this year, but you can brainstorm new traditions together instead.”
Get the kids involved with charitable giving. Simply saying, “You’re lucky – many kids don’t have anything,” can lead to eyerolls and resentment. But actually illustrating what good you can do will open kids’ already big hearts even wider. “If you’re going to donate food to a pantry, let your child help you pick out which cans to give,” said Dr. Gurwitch. “If you’re buying a gift to give to a kid in need, have your child pick it out.” Or have them go through their old toys to pick things to donate before they can get new ones.
Recognize that disappointment pays off in the long run. “Let them know it’s OK to feel disappointed that they didn’t get everything they wanted – but to look at all the toys they did get,” said Dr. Knickerbocker. “Don’t show a big personal reaction if they pout, act like they don’t like something, or refuse to say ‘thank you.’ Kids will be kids, and all kids go through this phase. They will learn to be more grateful as they get older.”
This story was originally published on Dec. 4, 2017, and has been updated with the University of Toledo study.
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