Tips for joyful giving (and staying sane)

The hints start dropping early. Visions of sugarplums give way to images of the hottest toys, trends, and technology. Lists, links, and spreadsheets are emailed, tweeted, and texted.

I want. I want. I want.

Our inboxes overflow with gift ideas. We get wound up by the promises of glittery commercials and displays. It’s almost impossible to avoid, and if we are vulnerable, our kids are even more so.

While most of us look forward to this season of giving, so many parents feel pressured to give more than they see as reasonable, often more than they can comfortably afford. Over-indulgence seems to come with the territory, so let’s stop for a minute, take a breath, and check out some practical tips that can make holiday giving a positive and joyful experience for everyone concerned.

Anticipate what you are willing to buy and able to spend.

It’s easy to get caught up in the holiday shopping frenzy. But even if you’ve got unlimited resources for holiday shopping, it’s not a good idea to give kids everything they want. Budgeting is good, common sense at any time of the year—and especially during the holidays. Decide on a specific number of gifts you’re willing to buy for a specific amount of money. Keep it simple and don’t promise what you (or Santa) can’t deliver.

Several parents shared that gifts for their children include “something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read,” as the old saying goes. Many offer homemade gifts. (Several commented on how they still have gifts that were made for them when they were children.) 

Others went with “one big present and several smaller ones,” practical or whimsical items for kids to enjoy. Some offer “coupons” for things they could do or activities they could share. One parent on a limited budget offered to split the cost of a big-ticket item, which encouraged her kids to earn, save, and take a share of responsibility in getting what they wanted.

Go ahead and encourage as long a list as they want to make. That will help guide your choices. And do let them know what they can expect ahead of time. You don’t have to be specific about the actual gifts, but do be specific about limits you decide to set on quantity or cost. If you’ve already gotten a bit carried away, prioritize what you’ve purchased, pare down to a more reasonable number of gifts, and return what you can (or save something for birthdays or events).

Encourage gratitude and appreciation.

If your children are truly appreciative of what they have in their lives and know how to receive and acknowledge gifts with gratitude (even the ones they aren’t real excited about), give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve taught them well. 

If, however, your child is like the one I saw who grabbed presents out of people’s hands and later threw aside the ones he didn’t like, you have some work to do. Don’t punish, tempting though that may be! 

Instead, model and teach. Kids aren’t born knowing how to receive graciously. Fortunately, it’s never too late to start guiding them in more civil, respectful directions. 

Many parents include sharing and volunteering in their holiday traditions. This is a great time to have your kids clean out their closet or toy box and donate at least one item they haven’t used in a while, something another child could enjoy. Giving to others in need can help kids value what they have.

Check what’s driving your spending. 

Shopping for the perfect gifts for others can be fun and exciting, and kids have more ways than ever to let you know what they want. Just be sure you’re not buying for the wrong reasons. 

Here are a few examples I’ve heard from otherwise well-meaning parents:

  • You’re investing in future cooperation and good behavior. Buying kids stuff hoping to obligate them to be respectful or good is a bad idea. First off, motivation doesn’t work that way. (Positive outcomes are earned and come after the fact, and the best motivators can’t be gift-wrapped.) Give what you can give freely, with no strings attached.
  • You’re competing for their affection. One mom told me that when she was going through a divorce, she found herself trying to keep up with what her ex was buying the kids. This put a tremendous strain on her—emotionally and financially. She ultimately realized that she couldn’t control her ex’s spending, and that her kids would have to settle for a mom who was present, loving, and financially sober and sensible.
  • You’re trying to keep up with what other parents are buying. Good luck with that! Different families have different budgets and needs. Competitive shopping will leave you feeling exhausted and resentful—hardly the spirit of giving the season is supposed to inspire! Do what you can do within whatever limits make sense and feel good—to you.
  • You’re trying to compensate for something. You’ve had a tough year. Yelled too much. Haven’t been there for them as much as you’d have liked. Or maybe you’re trying to give them the holidays you never had as a child. Shopping out of guilt or grief isn’t good for them or for you. A far better option might include a few tangible items along with a commitment to improving your availability and sharpening your parenting skills in the coming year.

Validate their desires, even if you can’t fulfill them

There’s nothing wrong with wanting lots of stuff. A comment like “I know you wish you could get that” will be more effective and reassuring than accusing them of being selfish or greedy, talking about what you had to settle for when you were their age, or telling them how their wishes affect you.

Stick to your commitment

We’re vulnerable to whining and begging when we’re feeling tired or guilty. Take care of yourself so that when it comes time for presents, your giving comes from a place of absolute generosity and joy.

© 2016, Dr. Jane Bluestein

Additional resource: 

How to Stay Sane While Giving and Receiving During the Holidays,” by Judy Lawrence.

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