How Much is Too Much at the Holidays?

Posted December 18, 2013 by

I often hear parents in my counseling practice who are stressed out about buying for their children during the holidays.  The sentiment goes something like “The closer we get to the holidays, the more stressed I am about how much I should buy my children. My children add to their holidays lists daily. I want them to be happy, but sometimes I feel that I have to overspend to please them. What should I do?”

Being a parent today is complicated; even when you want to overindulge your children because it’s the holidays, you recognize the importance of setting limits. Children see something and they immediately want it — its part of their development. Thankfully, as a parent, you have the advantage of judgment and reason and can use this to exercise control over your desire to indulge. Many problems can arise if you give to your children without discretion. Resisting excessive materialism is especially difficult today when children have so much exposure to media messages.  How do you resolve the conflict between what the media and your children are telling you that they absolutely “must have”, and what you know is best for your children?

You may worry that if you do not buy everything on your children’s wish list, they will be disappointed on the day they open their gifts. It’s true that your children may appear momentarily let down when they do not receive every new gadget they requested, but this is typical and fleeting. Once they absorb what they have received, they will enjoy their gifts and their time with the family on the holidays.

Many parents tend to struggle when setting limits, and yet most children thrive with limits and moderation. Establish appropriate expectations by asking your children for a list of their top three big-ticket items and three to five smaller items. Let them know they will receive some of what is on their list, but not everything. Gentle reminders of these guidelines will insert reality as the list grows and the holidays near.

The holidays can be an opportunity to exercise material moderation. During the holiday season, parents can set a tone before the celebration that promotes the values of gratitude, family, giving back and the importance of moderation. Our consumer-oriented society will still exist, but you can set the tone for the holidays in your own household.

Frame the holidays as a time for giving, a way of showing gratitude for all that you have as a family, including everything your children already have. Remind your children of the importance of home, health and family, and emphasize how lucky they are to have these things every day. Engage your family in such activities as donating toys or food to local causes or serving others in need.

Parents can model conservative gift-giving and receiving. Ask for gifts of donations to a cause or something made by your child; simple gifts send a powerful message.

One last parenting tip: The holidays are a good time to trust your judgment more than your fear. Try not to give in to your desire to buy “just a few more things” when you feel that last-minute panic about not having bought “enough” for your children. Instead of piling on more presents, put your energy into framing the holidays as a time where giving and spending precious quality time together is more important than the number of gifts received.

About

Kate Roberts, Ph.D., is a Boston-area licensed clinical psychologist and certified school psychologist who has coached parents and families for more than 25 years. She offers parents practical strategies in her bi-weekly parenting column; Dr. Kate’s Parent Rap in the Salem News and in her Savvy Parenting blog for Psychology Today. Dr. Roberts has worked as a consulting psychologist to school districts throughout New England and works with parents and children through Massachusetts General Hospital. You can check out Dr. Kate's website at www.drkateroberts.com and also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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