Right about now, countless kids across the United States are happily adding items to their growing holiday wish lists as parents anxiously consider how to create a happy holiday for their children without going overboard.
Parents wonder: Can they give their kids a holiday to remember without breaking the bank? And even if they can stretch their budget, will their kids appreciate it? Is it overindulgent? Or will they discard that expensive new digital toy hours later, in favor of playing with the box it came in?
Giving kids meaningful gifts without going overboard can be a challenge, acknowledges Elise Judkins, LCSW, a social worker with Menninger's Comprehensive Psychiatric Assessment Service
and a mother of two young children. Here are her tips for giving gifts that strike the right balance:
Buy gifts for your kid, not the kid in the commercial
It may seem obvious, but consider your kid’s unique interests and developmental stage when buying gifts. That means you won’t always buy the most popular toy of the season, but one that encourages learning, dramatic play and creativity. “My two-year-old daughter likes toys that allow her to mimic what I do,” Judkins says. “She likes to use play kitchen equipment to ‘cook’ alongside me. My six-year-old son is all about superheroes, so costumes are a perfect gift for him.”
Make a “smart” decision when picking (and giving) technology gifts
Many top technology companies strategically unveil their new devices in the months leading up to the holidays to pique the interest of tech-hungry kids. Feeling the pressure to stay up to date, parents often stretch their budgets to buy the hot new gizmo on their kids’ holiday list.
“Don’t get caught up in fad technology or having to be a first-generation owner. That’s not a habit you want to create for your kids long term,” Judkins says. She suggests telling your child you expect them to use the device to develop learning and critical skills, as well as for entertainment. Also, set boundaries up front, including setting privacy settings and establishing when and where the device can be used, and for how long.
“In addition to being mindful about the amount of time a child spends on the device, make sure that he or she is engaged in other activities like sports, playing outside and being actively engaged with others,” Judkins emphasizes. “Being in contact with people on devices is not the same as connection.”
“In addition to giving material gifts, try to make the holidays about the experience,” Judkins says, emphasizing that joy and meaning can be found in “slowing down and enjoying the process leading up to the holidays.” Fun family experiences include driving around and looking at holiday lights, attending cookie exchanges or watching holiday parades. Parents can also give experiences as gifts, such as a family membership to a zoo or museum, or give an item the entire family can use, such as a ping-pong table for the playroom or basketball hoop for the driveway.
Hand down an heirloom
Judkins says families should also consider shopping their own homes, yard sales or thrift stores to find one-of-a-kind items that don’t cost a mint. When customized, these items can become valued family heirlooms, passed down through generations. “My father found an inexpensive chest at an estate sale and personalized it with my son’s initials,” she says. “That became our treasure chest. It is something he really loves.”
Give back to give perspective
Kids don’t always understand that not everyone is as fortunate to have overflowing playrooms. Giving to charity helps widen a child’s perspective — whether by donating money to hungry children overseas, or selecting and wrapping a toy for an underprivileged child closer to home. “Thinking about other people who may not have as much helps kids develop gratitude and makes them want to spread the holiday spirit to others.”
Don’t overdo it
Finally, don’t be tempted to equate buying gifts for your children with buying love. It’s a trap many parents, especially divorced parents, fall into to make up for their perceived inadequacies as a parent. In the case of divorce, too many gifts from one parent can be confusing, and they can send mixed messages to children. Time and memories are much better gifts.
“I think meaningful time with parents is what kids want,” Judkins says. “Even though kids may not be able to articulate that, that’s what they are going to remember at the end of the day. That is what lasts.”