Setting Limits on Kids Gifts

Want to start setting limits for children's Christmas gifts? When it comes to holiday presents, sometimes less is more. Here's how to temper their expectations.

For Sophia Beaulieu’s first Christmas, her parents did what most of us do: went crazy. “It took her all day, maybe even two days to open all the presents,” admits Deborah Beaulieu of West Bloomfield. “It didn’t mean much to her – and we ended up having a pile of toys that just sat there.”

Now, Beaulieu and her husband make sure they don’t overdo for their two kids, whether that means just a few, carefully chosen gifts for the holidays or birthday parties where everyone gets a gift.

It’s a struggle most parents go through. So how do we set limits on gifts – especially when there have been few limits in the past?

Ways to shave it down

Some families incorporate themes for giving at Christmas that can be adapted for any gift-giving event. One popular idea is the “Three Kings” Christmas. The Three Kings presented Mary with three gifts when Jesus was born, so the family agrees to give each child just three gifts.

There’s also a four-gift idea from Victorian tradition. It comes with an easy-to-remember poem: “Something you want, something you need; something to wear and something to read.”

Many parents limit themselves to one big, special gift per child, and then a smattering of smaller, more practical gifts like books and clothes.

“If there are healthy limits placed on the number of gifts, then kids and adults tend to appreciate each gift that much more,” says Dr. Jeffrey DeGroat, a clinical psychologist in St. Clair Shores and Birmingham.

Having a chat

Of course, adopting any of these ideas with kids above age 5 may generate some serious resistance. That’s where communication comes in.

“The first thing I recommend for all families that are trying to do something different is to have a family meeting and bring up these issues in a formalized discussion,” says Annie Zirkel, a counselor and parenting consultant in Ann Arbor.

“You can discuss questions like ‘When is enough enough?’ ‘Do we feel like we have enough?’ ‘What is the difference between what I need and what I want?’ – and helping kids distinguish the difference. Ask: ‘Do you need that toy or do you want that toy?’ Help them be OK with not getting what they want.”

Talking about needs versus wants opens the door to other ideas families can consider. Instead of making the holidays all about receiving gifts, introduce values like family togetherness and charitable giving.

Looking for ways to teach your teen the power of giving meaningful gifts? Here are some ideas for them.

Focus on giving

These are values that come naturally to Chris Schulte of Royal Oak. The mother of two had a typical American upbringing, but her perspective changed completely when she spent two years in Kenya with the Peace Corps.

“I was in a very rural place and the kids made their toys out of garbage,” Schulte recalls. “They had the best time and the most fun that kids could have!”

Schulte returned home from Kenya and had a family of her own. When she asked her older daughter Rebecca what she wanted from Santa for her second Christmas, Rebecca replied, “A lollipop.” Schulte resisted the desire to give her more than she asked for and Rebecca received just that – a lollipop.

Schulte and her husband Mike have followed suit. Their two girls have made donations in their teachers’ names for holiday gifts, and the family has volunteered for the South Oakland Shelter and made Christmas cards together.

“What you want is not necessarily what you need,” Schulte says. “They realize that. They’re happy to go outside and play in the yard.”

Parenting experts agree. Kids don’t need an excessive amount of stuff. But there are some things they do need, says Judy Pearlman, a social worker and therapist in Plymouth.

“You can’t spoil them enough with love and attention,” she says. “With gifts? Yes. But with love and attention: There’s never enough.”

This post was originally published in 2010 and is updated regularly.

Illustration by Grant Gilliland.