7 Ways to Manage Your Kids’ Holiday Expectations


7 steps toward more giving, less gimme this holiday season.


7 Ways to Manage Your Kids’ Holiday Expectations Whenever holiday season comes around, I’m reminded of the Christmas when I was six years old. I desperately wanted a pair of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy dolls. I’d seen them advertised and coveted their cheerful red-yarn hair and freckles. Oh, how I wanted those colorful dolls! On Christmas morning, I eagerly tore the wrapping paper off my gift and found...an electric blanket. I went into a period of mourning and moping that was, well, pretty unattractive. It wasn’t until years later that I considered the matter from my parents’ point of view: They didn’t have much money at the time, and they certainly weren’t going to spend it on dolls when a blanket in Minnesota was something I really needed!

I tell this story because the issue of holidays and gift-giving is a perennial challenge for parents of young children. The marketing and advertising pressures are enormous, we want to make our children happy, and yet...many parents can’t afford to buy expensive gifts, and even if they could, they don’t want to raise spoiled, entitled children. So, how to strike a balance? Consider these seven tips.

  1. Decide on your values. Ideally, you should do this before your child is born, but failing that, do it now: Decide what’s important to you as parents, and then make sure your gift-giving reflects those values. Do you want your child to be happy at all costs? Then by all means, buy them everything they want. (Full disclosure: I don’t recommend this approach—and I don’t think it works!) Do you want to raise an appreciative child, or one who is generous and empathetic toward others? Emphasize the giving more than the getting.
  2. Inform others (especially, ahem, grandparents) about your decision. I couldn’t wait to get my 4-year-old granddaughter the play ice-cream stand she was crazy about. But when I told my daughter, she said, “Mom, what were you thinking?” Having your child showered with gifts may compromise the values you’re trying to impart. If the gifts arrive anyway, parents can consider doling them out judiciously throughout the year.
  3. Manage expectations. You don’t want your child waking up in the morning believing he’s going to receive that coveted toy when you know it’s completely out of range with your budget or your values. Start the conversation early in the season. First, validate their feelings (“I understand this is something you really want”). Then let them know not to expect it, either because “That’s just not possible for us right now” (perhaps you can suggest they put it on their birthday list?) or because “We can’t have everything we want.” Talk about the other fun ways you’ll be celebrating the holiday (see ideas below in #7).
  4. Discover the help that’s available. If your family is struggling financially this year, there are a number of wonderful programs that can ensure your child receives some holiday gifts. If you’re a military family, look into Operation Christmas Spirit or Operation Homefront. The Salvation Army and Toys for Tots have provided assistance during the holidays for years; search their websites for a location near you.
  5. Focus on giving. This should really be the spirit of the season. Talk about the people your child may want to give gifts to—what they enjoy doing, their hobbies and interests. Help your child create handmade cards or drawings or small crafts projects that are special to each recipient. (Pinterest is loaded with great ideas.) Include your children in giving your time and donations to local organizations. It’s always so moving to see kids discover the joys of giving—and the most meaningful gifts come from the heart.
  6. Model appreciation. Even if you don’t realize it, your children are looking to you for guidance on how to act. Make sure you’re an appropriate role model, particularly around gift-giving and receiving! Instead of having a frenzied “unwrapathon” with paper and ribbon flying in all directions, have everyone take time to open and appreciate each gift and thank the gift-giver. Write thank-you notes, and have your children write (or draw) their own, or dictate their thanks for you to write down.
  7. Create meaningful holiday memories that are not about gifts! Curl up on the couch together with popcorn and hot chocolate to watch movies. Go sledding or hiking together. Have a holiday house-decorating party. Play board games together. The key word here: together.

Because this is what’s truly important to children: family. As the Reverend Jesse Jackson once said, “Your child needs your presence more than your presents.”

Happy Holidays!

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About Denise

About DeniseDenise Daniels is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist, parenting and child development expert and author who specializes in the social and emotional development of children.