Flipping through old family photos the other day, I found one of my favourite images of my daughter. Esme, then just one, was under the twinkling tree on Christmas morning, surrounded by a sleigh-full of gifts, hugging a plush elephant with a look of rapture on her chubby face. It’s exactly the moment I’d wanted to create: the pure joy of baby’s first Christmas. The reality? Nothing like it. In fact, we had to cajole her to open gift after gift. She was an overstimulated, cranky beast by 9 a.m. Merry Christmas! Of course, now it’s a different story. Fast-forward the home movie and my kids, now six and four, are very keen to tear open as many presents as they can get their mitts on over the holidays. But do they really even look at them? Appreciate them?
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I know it’s a scene that plays out in homes across countries and cultures. Even holidays like Eid or Hanukkah have become a gift-a-palooza for some families, probably partially because of the excesses of Christmas culture. If spoiling our kids is the real gift we’re giving them on the holidays, is it too late to return it?
There’s a new shelf full of books on the subject (The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine and The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean M.Twenge among them), lamenting what will become of this generation of overindulged kids. Everything from a lack of independence to an overgrown sense of entitlement, rank high in the authors’ concerns. At a minimum, showering kids with presents sets up their expectations. Excess equals happiness. More is better.
Personally, I’ve always objected to the word itself: spoiled. Like rotten fruit? Yuck. Yet as much as we pay lip service to teaching our kids about the spirit of the holidays alongside the avalanche of stuff, what’s the real message we’re sending kids? I just don’t see “Joy to the World” standing up to the latest Barbie dreamhouse.
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Toronto mom Michelle Kelly has mixed feelings about the holiday bacchanalia. Her two-year-old son, Roy, receives gifts from Kelly and her husband, but also from two sets of grandparents, aunts and uncles and, of course, Santa. It adds up pretty quickly. “Part of me hates myself for it because now I’m a cog in the machine of consumerism. I’m almost indoctrinating my son!” And yet, there’s that pleasure at seeing your kid’s face light up that’s hard to deny. As much as Kelly tempers the over-the-top-ness of it all with plenty of reminders about gratitude, she asks, “So what if one day of the year they’re opening presents with glee? They’re kids! Does it always have to be a learning experience?”
Halifax mom Hannah Munday is a fairly strict mother of three for most of the year, so she doesn’t really sweat going big over the holidays. “At Christmas, my kids know that they may wish for things, but that it’s not a guarantee they’ll get everything they’re hoping for. But if it does lie within our power to grant that wish, it’s magical to see the looks on their faces when they get what they really, really want. They’re good kids and we like to have one time of year where we just indulge them.”
So, what’s the harm in letting the tinsel fly? Psychotherapist and parenting educator Andrea Nair warns that piling on the presents can goad kids into unsavoury reactions (“A sweater? Ugh!”).
“I believe gift-giving spoiling happens when children have so many presents they actually stop enjoying playing with them — when they focus more on opening presents rather than with what’s inside.”
If you’ve decided to control the escalating arms race of gift giving, you’ll have to think beyond your own household and get the message out to your entire extended family. You could be judicious in your own spending and still find your kids drowning in wrapping paper. And Nair says grandparents don’t get carte blanche either. She recommends going shopping with grandparents — at any time of year — and offering to stow gifts away until the holidays. It will save on shipping if they don’t live close by, and you’ll have a bit more influence on what and how much gets chosen. But above all, she says, “Be specific and clear about your limits.”
For Heather Greenwood Davis, limiting gifts just didn’t go far enough to remedy the uneasiness she was feeling. Although her family celebrates the holidays in every other way, a couple of years ago, when her kids were seven and nine, they decided to put a complete moratorium on presents. “Our boys were part of the decision process in the beginning, and they embraced it.”
Some friends and family didn’t take the shift so well. Greenwood Davis found herself explaining over and over to some people why her family was opting out of gifts. “We gave presents back, and had to deal with the ‘politeness’ of doing that. In some cases, we realized that the giver wasn’t going to get it and we simply accepted and donated the gift. Some people were personally offended. It was interesting to me that a personal decision we made for our family affected other people so much. But there were others who embraced the idea and did the same.”
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Of course, what counts as a little or a lot is highly subjective. A kid could receive dozens of gifts with gratitude or one with a bratty attitude. And let’s be honest, part of our own stress comes from our kids’ behaviours being on display at what can be a crowded family event. In which case, Nair says you need to stack the deck in your kids’ (and your) favour. “Coach children on how to be grateful for their presents, and to not say ‘Yuck!’ or ‘I hate this.’ We don’t want to dismiss children’s feelings, so you can say, ‘If you get something you don’t really like, remember to be thankful that the person went to the effort of getting something for you.”
My friend says she knows she goes too far with presents at Christmas, and finally put her finger on why. “I think I was compressing all my memories of Christmas mornings and trying to recreate that each year for my kids.”
I think back to the holidays orchestrated by the original Christmas spoiler, my mother, and know exactly what she means. But it also brings back an embarrassing Kodachrome memory of my four-year-old self, when I was so anxious we weren’t feeling “Christmasy” enough — despite the many, many gifts under the tree — that I made my family hold hands and sing a carol before bed on Christmas Eve.
I can’t say that my kids won’t want more presents than will be good for them this year, or that they’ll handle the absence of some wished-for gifts with grace. But I’ve started placing more emphasis on the traditions we’ve started — the cookie-baking party, the trip to visit Santa, the drive out to the country to choose our tree — and I’ve asked them what they’d like to add to that list rather than asking them what they’d like on that Other List. In the end I hope these are the mental snapshots they’ll look back on, the “Christmasy” fun, embarrassing carols and all.
Gratitude Building 101
Toronto-based family coach Andrew Blackwood offers these tips on teaching kids to get beyond the “gimmees”:
•Kids become more aware of gratitude when they see it and hear it. Model the gratitude by regularly expressing appreciation for the things and people you have in your life.
•Find appropriate educational materials or simply talk about the experiences of those who are less fortunate.
•Some families sponsor other families, donate food, toys and clothing as well as give their time and service, especially during the holidays.
A version of this article appeared in our December 2013 issue with the headline “All I want for Christmas is… everything,” pp. 64-7.