Practicing with Children

How Much is Too Much?

by Jennifer Mills-Knutsen

‘Tis the season—for blog posts and articles and morning talk show pieces about gift boxhow many presents to give to your children. There are people who make the case for the wild delight of an indulgent Christmas morning, for those who can afford it. Others argue that privileged children have too much already, and we should direct all our giving to people in need. Another popular option is the “three-gift” Christmas—something you want, something you need, something to read. The conversation can become quite heated. It’s become almost as much of a battleground as debates about co-sleeping, breastfeeding and stay-at-home parenting.

Add this post to the collective conversation, but hopefully with some gentleness. Let’s start with a premise: there is no right answer for everyone. Good, faithful people can choose to indulge in whimsy and piles of presents. Good, loving parents can choose to give no presents to their children and instead direct their family’s resources to charity. Good, kind-hearted people can also fall all along the spectrum in between. None of these, alone, are signs of   responsible parenting.

We engage this debate every year within my own home. Both my husband and I grew up on big Christmases, with lots of toys and packages under the tree, even though neither of our families were wealthy. We remember those days fondly, and we would like to pass that joyous experience along to our son. That experience of received generosity taught us a lot about how to be generous.

However, we also do not want to be indulgent, and teach him that he can have anything and everything he writes on a list. We want to teach our son that not everyone in the world, even in his school, can expect to have presents under the tree—and that we should practice generosity by spending money not just on ourselves, but on others. And, one more factor (that probably plays an even bigger role in our gift-giving calculus than we would like to admit) is that we live in a fairly small house which already has lots of clutter and no closets.

With all that in mind, here are the strategies we use every year to think about “how much is too much.” I share them not because they will work for everyone, but because they might open the door to conversations in your own family.

1. Talk openly with each other about our spending. How much money should we spend this year? Sometimes, it’s more, other times less. We make sure to never go into debt or spend more than we can afford. Last year, we ordered all our gifts used on Ebay, and spent only as much as I could make selling stuff on Ebay. This year, we have experienced an increase in our income, so we are buying a video game system for the first time—it’s a big expense, but fun for everyone and expected to last for many years.

2. Always find a way to give to those in need. On Saturday, my husband and son spent the day shopping for someone on the Angel Tree. My husband went out of his way to purchase items that were equal to or nicer than the items we have for ourselves. No knock-off Legos or fake brand Barbies. We want to communicate to the recipients and to our son that they are worth the best, not less than what we would do for ourselves.

3. Find ways to offer lots of packages without being overly indulgent. Everyone likes opening presents. It’s fun! While we may joke about getting socks and underwear for Christmas, the truth is that most of us need new ones on a regular basis, and it’s way more fun to get them under the tree than just grab a new pack at Target. My son is currently living with a ratty collection of socks that have holes everywhere. On Christmas morning, he’s getting a bunch of new ones. Because it’s Christmas, I spent a few extra dollars to get him the brightly colored ones he loves. It’s still practical and necessary, but he’ll be excited to unwrap them because they are more than just plain white mega-packs. He also needs a new school backpack. Rather than just running out and grabbing one, I ordered him one from his favorite sports team. He’ll be thrilled and surprised, and we haven’t bought anything we didn’t need to get anyway. More packages to open, without actually adding more unnecessary stuff to our lives.

4. Think about Christmas Day. We want something(s) that will be new and entertaining to play with on Christmas Day after the short blast of ripping open packages. So, we think strategically to make sure that there is something that can be opened for family fun—whether a new Lego set, a board game or (this year) a video gaming system. Last year, the Big Gift was a bike—but weather meant that bike sat in the garage until spring. We made sure there is something else that could be played with Christmas Day.

5. Balance with the rest of the year. Part of the reason Christmas was so magical for us as children was that it was the only time of year (apart from birthdays) when we got new things, whether toys or clothes or anything else. Our parents didn’t buy us toys any other time. What you got on Christmas was what you played with for the whole next year. We follow the same pattern, for the most part. It allows us to feel good about having lots of presents on Christmas morning, knowing that it is one day of indulgence rather than one more day of indulgence. If you like to shop and buy presents year round, maybe that’s a good reason to hold back on Christmas day.

6. Just say no to junk. Every year, my son’s list contains something that is heavily advertised, overpriced, large and likely to entertain for approximately 30 minutes before ending up gathering dust. This year, it’s a giant talking Yoda. We don’t hesitate to avoid these gifts, and make it clear that he shouldn’t expect everything on his list. Sometimes, we talk about the impact of advertising, the lousy quality of the product, or the high price tag, but other times we just move on. He’s never been disappointed with our choices.

These strategies have helped us feel good about figuring out the right amount of gifts for our family. I recognize that there is a great deal of privilege in the ability to even make these choices. I’m eager to hear from you about the questions you ask yourselves and the strategies you use to decide what’s right in your family. Also, none of this works as well as we would like on the grandparents. If anyone has any insight about that one, I’m all ears! Post below in the comments, please!


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