Presence Over Presents: How To Find Balance When Giving Gifts To Children

Here’s how to teach your kids that the holidays aren’t about getting 8 gazillion gifts.

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Last year, our family celebrated Christmas in a way that my husband and I vowed to never repeat. I am Jewish, but my husband’s family celebrates Christmas—to the extreme—and it was the first time we’d all been together since our kid was born three years earlier. Perhaps his aunts, uncles, and cousins were making up for lost time, but by the time the gift-giving was over, you can imagine the scene: paper strewn everywhere, toys hidden under other toys, manic children. Our 3-year-old had six times more stuff than we could fit into our suitcases, most of it plastic or singing some oppressively obnoxious tune on repeat. Most of it was stuff that she would almost instantly forget she’d been gifted. After we flew home (having given 75 percent of the presents to my mother-in-law to store at her house for weekend visits), I checked in with my sister, who had just celebrated Hanukkah with her kids in the sanest way I’d ever heard. It changed the way I looked at gift-giving forevermore. There are eight days of Hanukkah, and most families stretch out the presents over those days, but the same principles can be applied to Christmas giving. The idea behind it is that each of the presents given on the eight days is unique and teaches children that the holidays aren’t all about getting but about giving as well. While you may opt for three, five, or 10 gifts (and can spread them out over the time period of your choice), choose a number and stick to it. Here are some ways to divvy up the love so the kids can take an active part in sharing the holiday joy:

Gift 1

This is the one your kid has been begging for all year—the massive Lego set, the scooter, the bike. Go for it! There’s nothing better than seeing their little faces light up after receiving something they’ve really longed for and you know they will enjoy.

Gift 2

If you have more than one child and the children are old enough, this gift is something they select and give to each other. It’s even better if it’s something they’ve made themselves. This turns the focus immediately from getting to giving. If the kids are little, help them make a painting, “write” a book, or assemble a photo album. Research actually shows that we get more joy from giving than receiving, so sharing between siblings, cousins, and young friends should start in the early years.

Gift 3

Give to a charity of your child’s choice. Do they care about animals? The environment? Homelessness? Education? This gives you an opportunity to help them think about how they can help the world around them. Engage the kids about what matters to them. You can do this by giving money to a cause or actually volunteering your time during the holidays.

Gift 4

Invest in a gift that the whole family can enjoy together: tickets to Hamilton, a trip to Disneyland, a membership to the zoo, or even a dinner out at the kids’ favorite restaurant where they can eat all the dessert they want. Research shows that people enjoy “experiential” gifts more than tangible things. That enjoyment can contribute to cozy familial feelings and great shared memories when it’s experienced together.

Gift 5

Give your child a card with $5 (or $10, or $20) in it that she can spend however she likes. If she’s young, walk her to her favorite store and let her pick something out. This sense of independence will help her feel empowered and respected.

Gift 6

Pass along something old and meaningful. Does your son love to fix things with Grandma or play the guitar with Grandpa? Passing along a favorite tool or instrument can mean a lot to a child. A friend of mine who is in her thirties still has the special calligraphy set her grandmother gave her to teach her the art form.

Gift 7

Another reminder that the holidays are about helping others: Collect your gently used toys and clothes and donate them to a local charity in need…

Gift 8

…and finally: Buy a new toy for a family in need. This will teach your kids the joy of sharing with those who are less fortunate than them—and help them develop empathy for others. No matter how different a less fortunate child might seem, when you’re child imagines another young person enjoying the toy they selected, it will prove there is a common thread of joy and excitement that can be shared by all children. Also, because the children who receive donated toys may only get one or two gifts, it’s an opportunity to teach your own children that less is actually more—that there is great value in receiving one very coveted toy over 10 crappy ones.

Making a Holiday Game Plan

Being explicit is key here. If the kids are old enough, sit them down a few weeks or months before the holidays to explain the plan. This way they can think hard about what’s of material value to them, what activity they’d want to partake in as a family, and where they’d like to volunteer time and donate money. Getting them involved is the key to success—and a wonderful way to home in on your family values.

Okay, but what about Grandma?

This is a subject my husband and I bicker about: My mother-in-law is a giver. She buys Christmas presents in September, and giving them to our daughter brings her unbridled joy. My husband thinks we should just tell her to stop buying them—or at least to buy fewer. But the idea of taking that joy away from her simply because we don’t like the clutter—or, more vitally, because all that gift-giving doesn’t align with our values—is not something I am interested in doing. So how to deal? The key is to be kind and clear. We are so grateful for all you’ve given us in the past, or, We know how much you love celebrating Christmas and we love to celebrate with you, but… Explain that your child already has enough stuff (if you have limited space, feel free to blame it on that) and that it’s important to you to teach him the value of giving, which you find difficult to do when he is bombarded with gifts he can barely keep track of.

Be specific about the gifts your child has enjoyed from her in the past.

“Johnny absolutely loved the dolls you gave him last year and plays with them all the time. I know he’d love a few more of those. I don’t think he enjoyed the plastic dinosaur that much.” No one can read your mind—and no one knows your kid as well as you do—so clarity is key.

Ask for things you need.

Onesies, burp cloths, diapers. New pajamas, socks, a good winter jacket, mittens, new boots, a toddler bed. These are useful gifts you know your kid will get a lot of mileage out of.

Be even more specific.

A friend of mine asks for homemade gifts or gifts that are made from natural materials. This will really limit the options and cut back on the clutter.

Ask for experiences that will inspire your child.

Maybe Grandma wants to pay for dance or art classes, guitar lessons, or a year’s subscription to a favorite magazine. Other suggestions: a membership to an art museum or a year’s worth of baseball tickets.

Ask them to invest in your kid’s future.

Instead of giving your child five gifts, suggest that they choose two that the kid will really like (again, suggest things!) and invest the rest of the money in the child’s college fund or daycare bill.

Sharing is caring.

Tell your family that this year you’re thinking more about people in need and that you’d love for them to give all (or some of) the gift funds to a charity. They can even do it in their grandchild’s name! Suggest a charity or two or let them give to a place that means something to them.

When worst comes to worst…

If you know that your child will get way more gifts than you feel comfortable with, tell your child in advance that he or she will be able to keep a certain number (be clear about what the number is ahead of time), and that the rest will be donated to a child in need. This way she has to really think about what’s of value to her and what might be of value to another child.

Spread the cheer throughout the year.

If you know that there will be way too many gifts from Grandma and Grandpa, tell your parents (or whoever else) you are comfortable with them giving X number of gifts on Christmas or during Hanukkah. The rest they can give to you, and you will promise to distribute them on special occasions over the course of the year. If the idea of limiting your kids’ gift intake is giving you anxiety (first-world anxiety), remember: Giving too many gifts can actually have adverse consequences. The last thing any of us wants is to turn a joyous occasion into an experience that triggers greedy, ungrateful, or monstrous behavior. Keep in mind what kinds of values you’re trying to instill in your children and hold onto them. Everyone else will come around. And if they don’t? You can always try again next year.

Abigail Rasminsky
Abigail Rasminsky has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Cut, O: The Oprah Magazine, and Marie Claire, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.

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