I used to enjoy getting ready for the holidays, but as our family has grown I feel as though the emphasis on gift giving is overwhelming me. We have three children from three to seven years old. The two older children started making lists (demands) right after Halloween! When we are driving, they sit in the back seat and talk about the merits of games or action figures or whatever. They’re even making lists for Santa who has never been a part of our tradition. We are not religious, but we're not that materialistic either, so it's hard to know how to respond to them. I hate the idea that my children are becoming so greedy.
I understand your difficulties. It seems like the holiday sale reminders have been up since summer! As adults, we have economic reasons to resist the desire to own everything we might fancy. Even in boom times, we all know that indulging our kids with toys they don’t need feels wrong. Now, when everyone is feeling the economic crunch, what used to seem partly O.K. can feel wrong.
Of course, children don’t tally up prices while they are being bombarded with advertisements for toys, clothing, and all of the equipment of childhood--bikes, skates, video games and "personal luxuries" that suddenly seem to be owned by everyone but them. School age children talk a lot about what they have and what they want--and once your children hear that their friends are going to get an item (which may or may not be true!) they may say they want it, too.
Nevertheless, before you label your children’s behavior as simple greed, consider that their desires are natural for their ages and a very normal reaction to advertising. In fact, it would be pretty unusual if a seven-year-old came home from school and said, "I've been thinking, Mom and Dad. Why don't we just skip the holiday gifts this year and save the money for my education?" It’s just like asking a child what he likes best about school--most kids reply, “Recess” even if they really like other parts of school as well. So step back from worrying too much about how your children are acting and focus instead on how you can best respond. Here are some ideas to help you deal with holiday greed:
• Don't assume that your children's wish lists are a set of demands. Kids enjoy making lists and fantasizing about what they'd like to have. (So do adults!) Why not tell your children that you'd love to hear about all the things they wish they could have, and that you'll use their lists as a guide when you choose what to buy for them? It’s O.K. to have fun with this, going through catalogs and choosing all of the wonderful things they would buy for themselves and each other if price weren't an object. (It can be fun to see what your child thinks you would like for your gift!)
• Look at your own spending habits. Sometimes parents unintentionally model behavior around gift giving that sends the wrong message to their children. Are you a lavish spender on gifts for yourselves or others? Do you often buy items as a way of showing your affection? Do you like to have the most stylish clothes or the latest kitchen appliance? Do you think of shopping as a fun way to spend time? Your children's attitudes are shaped by what they observe at home. If you model "recreational shopping" it's likely that your children will adopt the same behavior (although they may grow up to reject all of your shopping style--you never know).
• Help your children understand how you make financial decisions in your family. Every family has spending priorities. Your children have a right to know what your values are in this area. Children can't understand spending limits if no one tells them that there are any! Most families have years when they have more or less money to spend on "extras". If you are watching your expenses more than usual this year, it's reasonable to tell your children that you won't be able to spend as much as you did last year.
• Think about buying one family gift as your major holiday purchase. Some families solve the problems of gift giving by putting a large part of the holiday budget into one item that everyone in the family shares: a special vacation, camping equipment, a new television set. In big families, relatives often draw names so that they can buy one nice gift rather than lots of smaller gifts. Either way, more attention can be paid to choosing a gift that is just right rather than checking names off a list. Make sure that your children plan for gift-giving to others. School-age children should be expected to reciprocate giving gifts. You can help your child by providing ideas or equipment for making gifts, or by helping them to earn extra money by working around the house. Most children can't plan ahead for the holidays, so you should expect that the last week will be hectic and disorganized. Children are no different than adults when it comes to being overwhelmed by the holidays!
• Thankyous mean a lot. It’s true that written notes are less and less common, and even e-mailed thank yous sometimes get neglected. At the same time, a picture of your child enjoying a gift, a drawing, or even a short written note will make a huge difference to the giver. This is a time to help your child learn that giving thanks doesn’t end with Thanksgiving.