Teaching Kids about Giving, not Getting

Archived Q&A and Reviews

December 1998

I would like to open a forum for discussion of the whole gift/guilt/kids and consumption issue, for those who celebrate Christmas. I am a single parent who does receive child support, I do have a good job, and it isn't as though I can't do Christmas at all. I love the holiday and we have a beautiful tree with other traditions each year. It's just that I am getting resentful of my daughter's expectations(she is 8). I also realize that I have been instrumental in creating them.

She has a late November birthday, which I realize adds to the problem. Her father participates in none of the birthday celebration nor Christmas gift purchases. His side of the family is very generous, as is her stepmother, so she is not hurting for gifts or expressions of love. She also HAS everything imagineable. My issue, I guess, is where do I break this connection of guilt and obligation to spend money and buy her things just for the sake of it? What am I trying to prove and to whom?

p I have seen the receipt of gifts become meaningless year after year, as they get piled into the closet to be resurrected and played with in perhaps JULY?! She is an only child, so spreading them around isn't an option. Any feedback on this would be greatly welcomed. Thanks. I find myself on bedrest this holiday season, which had lead me to think about what is essential for a happy holiday (in our case, Christmas). I'm now remembering a book I read last year, after a Christmas of too much stress. If you'd like to have a simpler, more meaningful holiday experience this year or next, I highly recommend the book: Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the Season by Jo Robinson and Jean Staeheli. Natasha

I'm so glad you wrote about this issue. My son is only 2-1/2, so the consumption monster hasn't yet reared its ugly head, but I fear I may have already started him down the wrong path. I used to buy him tons of used toys. I always tried to find toys that required some imagination. After a while, though, his attention span waned, and in the last year, he's gotten very few toys. As a result, he has really learned how to play with the toys he has. But the other day, we passed a store display window, and Alexander asked me to buy him something for the first time. I caught a glimpse of the future, and it made me start thinking about this problem.

It seems to me there are a couple of ways to approach it. One is to ask why you feel you need to purchase things to express your love. Is it because you can't spend as much time with your child as you want? There are lots of holiday activities - concerts, plays, tree lighting ceremonies, teddy bear teas - that you can substitute for buying something.

And that gets to the other approach. Does your child have any idea of the meaning of Christmas? Can you try to teach her more about why we celebrate it and plan some activities together in that spirit? For example, rather than buying her a bunch of presents, take her with you to buy some toys to take to a homeless shelter. There were some good ideas in the Chronicle's Datebook section today, and Natasha Beery in another post to this list suggested a book that sounded like it might have some alternatives as well.

For myself, I would like to start some holiday traditions for our family that take the emphasis off the gift receiving, and I'd love to hear how other people have done this. Lysa

Re: Christmas gift giving. I also would like to have a simpler Christmas, with just one or two meaningful gifts, but in my case I feel compelled to compete with my wealthier relatives, particularly my own parents. I'm often panting to keep up (using my plastic credit way too much) to equal or better their birthday and Christmas presents to my son. I have a strong feeling that the parent(s) should give the main gifts and the relatives should give nice things, but not outdo the parents.

In my case my parents have far more money than I do, as do my sister's family and also my brother and his wife. As a result my son really gets too much stuff every year, but I just can't seem to break out of this. I know that if I even tried to explain some of this to my family, they would only smile tolerantly and just feel sorry for me. They really wouldn't get it, being a crowd of rampant consumers all, ever ready to rush out and get the latest must own thing.

p It's always a relief when the holidays are over because of this, even though at that point I am left with a lot of bills and, yes, many toys that don't get played with much. I feel the only way I could possibly get away from this competition in gift giving would be to move to a mountain top or desert island some where and cut off all communication with my extended family.

Has any one else faced a similar problem and come up with a reasonable solution? I don't want my son to think less of his grandparents or aunts and uncles, so I don't what to cast a lot of aspersions on the expensive gifts they give. Besides, I could probably get him to say that he liked some homemade thing I gave him best, but deep down it just wouldn't be the same thrill for him as the latest Hot Wheels set up, or something of that ilk.

I didn't mean for this to turn into such a long whine, but if any one has any suggestions, I'm definitely open to them. Dianna

It is not the quantity, it is the guality of time that counts. My suggestions: 1)Plan something you can do together, Mommy or Santa Gift certificates (Movies, park, Peir 39, Zoo). 2) Give Santa Bucks and encourage your child to purchase carnations and take to an old folks home, 3)At that age, they like to open presents more than what they get. I bought a package of six flavored chap stick and wrapped each one individually. Same with hair assessories. 3) Always decorate together (or let them do it all), make cookies. 4)Game board, puzzles and crafts are go tools to bring the family together. Aleta

I find your apprehensions to be quite pertinent. You might want to recall your childhood Xmasses. What is it that you think of fondly? In my case, that of someone who got pretty nice stuff, what I miss are the decorations, the stuffed stockings on the staircase, making gingerbread man cookies, and best of all, the magic of midnight church service. Somehow, even as a child I disliked the crass excessive consumption.

My own 4 year old son, thanks to a bunch of catalogs inundating our mailbox and Sunday paper ad inserts, by now wants about two UPS truckloads of gifts. I tell him that Santa has to think of all kids, although of course this might not fly with an 8 year old. In the end, my beautiful memories of holidays past tell me that these are what you decide to make them. A child might not appreciate what for him/her are abstract arguments on how privileged we are as a society and how callous our sense of entitlement can be, but that doesn't mean that we should (completly) bend to the, in the end, unhealthy demands of guilt and consumption. The best gift a child can receive is clear guidance, a structured life, and time with parents (along with sound financial planning that will allow him/her to not have to take care of them in their old age). This in itself is a tall order in our days of absurd work hours and double income obligations, but if one provides these, the issue of guilt becomes moot.

Another issue that bears mentioning is that of labor conditions in the toy factories of Asia. Due to repression of unionization efforts and terrible working conditions in China for example, I try to make an efort to buy US or European made toys. These are more expensive (e.g. Brio, Lego), but I just buy less. Another option is to buy used toys and invent a nice personal wrapping for them, which I am doing this year. It is a good way to support a small local business (I hate ToysRus) and fight waste. The preoccupation with labor conditions abroad and waste can also be solved by offering, as a gift, a outing to see The Nutcracker. With my family, we went to the Oakland Ballet's rendition of it a few years back. It was my first time at the ballet, and I loved it. I want to take my son again this year. Good luck. - adad

Our oldest daughter's first Christmas left us in a sea of excessive gift giving. We immediately instituted a new policy that limited all relatives to one toy per child for Christmas and birthdays. In our version of the 'rules' books and clothes don't count. My husband and I each deal with our own parents before each event to remind them of the rules, there's an ongoing battle by each set to break them (my husband has actually made his mother take toys home with her when she exceeded her limit). We firmly remind them that the kids don't need volumes of toys and they should focus on getting one very nice high quality item.

We've also outlawed gifts for all the minor holidays (Easter, Valentine's day, Halloween, etc.). Instead we've encouraged them to send cards. The cards have gotten pretty creative, I think our parents are actually enjoying the challenge. Our oldest daughter who can appreciate them loves when she gets them. She asks me to read the card over and over. She especially loves the XOXOXO's and what they mean.

Both sets of grandparents and all Aunts and Uncles live out of town so they all sneak in extra gifts when they visit but so far it hasn't gotten out of hand. Last time my sister was here she brought 2 books and told me she was afraid we'd ask them to stay at a hotel if she'd bought toys.

One parent mentioned that she felt the need to get more elaborate presents for her child than her relatives do. I just want to mention that I take the iopposite approach! If they're giving all those great presents, I feel that lets me off the hook and I can just buy a few little things. In fact I always let my relatives who can afford it know which extravagant presents would be most appreciated! So maybe take a deep breath and jump off the comptetition merry-go-round and see how it goes! Probably too late for this year, but try it next year. I bet if your kids are relatively young (under 10?) they won't even notice, and you will have escaped and established a different norm. And by the way I used to ask my relatives not to get the kids so many presents (literally there were so many that they got tired of opening them!) but it was absolutely unsuccessful, so I gave up. Now I discreetly take some of the presents and save them to give to a shelter. Of course soon I probably won't be able to do this w/o my kids noticing, but then

SEVA, which is headquartered in Berkeley, has a gift catalog of things you buy as a donation. One year they did have goats, for Navajos who support themselves raising the goats for their hair and making rugs. Once I bought a sink for a hut without sanitation. I don't have their number/address with me but I can get it. Their original focus was on erradicating preventable blindness in Nepal. Now they also do a lot of that in India and have branched out to other projects all over the world. Fran

To Debbie and all who asked about the catalog of alternative gift-giving: My church had a table a couple of weeks ago with all kinds of possibilities for alternative gift-giving. It was through an organization called Alternative Gifts International. I think this is what you were looking for. Amy