It can be hard to live with a chorus of “I want…gimme, gimme.” Whether expectations are based on advertising images of children with floor-to-ceiling wish lists or simply enjoying a friend’s toy or game, every parent at some time will face the expectations that children bring to the Christmas season.

For those who celebrate the holiday with a gift-giving tradition there are some basic strategies that may be helpful. Keep in mind that parents are always the spin doctors for their families and have great power to shape children’s values and understanding of the world.

  • From a faith-based context, remind children that baby Jesus only got 3 presents…And…none of them were toys.
  • Translate the idea of gifts as something that comes from the hearts of the givers.
    • Help them understand that when someone asks them, “What do you want?” they are really trying to say, “I want to give you something from my heart that will also make your heart glad.”
    • The egocentric preschooler is not expected to “get this” immediately. Planting the thought and encouraging children to think beyond themselves is laying a framework for the elementary child who will be expected to stretch toward a values based understanding of gift giving and receiving.
  • Begin to direct children to understanding that not all gifts are things.
    • Author Gary Chapman’s idea of “Five Love Languages”–gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service and physical touch–is a concrete tool for helping parents teach children about the variety of possible gifts.
  • Redirect the attention from “I Want” to “What am I giving?” Children have very little conception of money, but they can enjoy planning and creating expressions of caring. Some of these gift ideas might be to:
    • Plan a special time to visit a neighbor or elderly member of the community. Invite children to understand that shared time can be a gift we give from our hearts to someone else.
    • Have them write a special note or draw a special picture to share with someone in their life. (For those who cannot write, they can dictate a few lines for you to write on their drawing.)
    • Do something to help someone else. Families may choose to participate in sophisticated  projects like meal programs for the needy, or do something private by teaching children to “play helper elf” with siblings like picking up a toy or doing a sibling’s chore as a surprise.
    • Some children will create coupons for help with particular tasks or extra hugs for those they love.
  • Be aware of how much marketing is directed at children. You may need to limit how many ads young children see. For older children, you can engage in conversations that point out the goal of advertisement as a way to create artificial wants, for example, “Look at how many ads say I should want a new car right now.”
  • When faced with buying demands in a store you may find some of the following strategies helpful:
    • For ages 3 and above, remind children that they can write it on their list when they get home.
    • If they forget to add it, do not feel obligated to remind them. (No longer having the object before them as a visual tease will often remove its power.)
    • Remember, parents can create the context for how many items can be on a “wish list.” For example, a parent might remind, “In our family, we get a present from Santa, Mom and Dad, and Grandpa and Grandma.”
    • If the item exceeds the wish list number, have the child begin the difficult process of learning to prioritize with questions like “Which one will you take off your list to add this one?”
    • Use the child’s imagination. Questions like, “What would you do with it if you had it at home right now? How would you and your friends play with it?” The mental images can often satisfy a temporary want.
    • If it is something that a child could build, begin to discuss with them what is at home that they could use to make one.
  • If Santa is a part of your tradition you may want to limit his role to filling stockings rather than granting special toys to good girls and boys. As children enter elementary school they will begin to make comparisons. It can be very difficult to have Santa’s gift somehow imply they are less than good.
    • Some with Santa traditions find themselves in the awkward place of having children attempt to circumvent parental limits by asking Santa for something that parents can’t or won’t give them. Again as the family spin doctor it is okay to limit Santa’s role by telling children that he won’t bring anything after Mom or Dad said “No”.  

As parents we often try to create perfect holidays for children. Facing, “I want…and gimme, gimme” demands daily can take the joy from holiday planning for anyone. While we face a culture that encourages an emphasis on gifts of things as a way to convey our love and care, you may find it helpful to think very broadly about gifts as you and your family create lasting holiday traditions of your own.