Holiday Gift Giving

Dr. Corinne Masur

When it comes to the holidays do we just go on auto pilot? Do what our own families did? Or do we try to think about what kind of holiday we want to provide for our children?

Parents often struggle over when to start giving gifts to their children and how to do so in a thoughtful way. Their own early experiences often influence what they want for their children at the holidays – whether this means following the traditions of their own families – or doing the opposite.

I know one mother whose holidays were quite sparse when she was a child who gave her son, an only child, 90 gifts for Christmas one year. I am not making this up. She loved her son and she loved to shop and she wanted to make sure her son felt loved. She wanted him to have what she did not have – and perhaps even to have what she fantasized about and wanted as a child.

It is so important to reflect on our own early experiences and to try to figure out how they impact our current lives and wishes. Is it really best to give our children what we wanted when we were children? Or is it better to try to understand why we wanted what we did, separately from what we think might be best for our children?

On the other hand, I know a family who gave no gifts because they wanted the children to understand that the holidays were a time for giving, not for getting.

For the adult who was inundated with gifts as a child, he or she may wish for a simpler, more meaningful holiday celebration for his or her own children. And for parents who received little as children, the wish may be for extravagance and plenty for their own children.

So what is the “best” way to go?

And is there such a thing as a “best” way??

I think one guiding principle is to try it to understand the age and stage of development where each of your children is and to consider, from the child’s point of view, what getting gifts will mean:

Up until age 2, a child will not really understand what a gift is. It is fun to see a toddler open a gift but if you pay attention, you will see that often the gift box is as interesting to the toddler as the gift itself. I recommend a couple of gifts for the one or two year old. Let’s be clear, though, gifts at this age are largely for the parent or the grandparents’ sake. At this stage of development the joy is really in the giving and not necessarily in the getting by the child him or herself. Choosing something developmentally appropriate that encourages large motor skills, imagination and interaction with siblings or others is ideal.

For the 3 or four year old, gifts start to have more meaning. It is fun for children of this age to open gifts and it is exciting for them to have a few surprises to enjoy. However, it is important not to overwhelm children of this age – as can easily happen at Christmas/Hanukkah or birthdays. Three and four year olds really do not know what to do with too many gifts. They will often hold on to the first one opened and lose interest after a few. Parents or other relatives can feel disappointed if a child does not react with excitement over a carefully chosen gift, another reason it is important to alert relatives to the importance of keeping things simple. Often a contribution to the child’s college fund or a small gift or book is best.

A helpful standard to follow until age 5 is to give the child no more than the child’s age in gifts at one time – i.e., two for the two year old, three for the three year old, etc.

By age 5 or so children have become accustomed to big celebrations may start to expect gifts, ask for certain gifts and make lists of gifts they want (when encouraged by their parents). Again, it is important not to overwhelm children of this age or to set up false expectations. Children NEED their parents to set up a safe and comfortable environment in which to experience the joy of the holiday – and this mean establishing some order, routine and limits within which to celebrate. Families need to decide what values they want to transmit to their children – and if materialism is not one of them – this should be reflected in the number and type of gifts given.

Children who have been encouraged to make lists for Santa (or for aunts and uncles and grandparents) may become disappointed at Christmas/Hanukkah. Once their expectations are raised, it is hard for them to understand why certain gifts they were hoping for did not arrive – and often they are disappointed in the ones that do. Expectations can be large at Christmas/Hanukkah – and parents need to help their children tolerate disappointment – and they may even need to help themselves to patiently tolerate hearing that the holiday was not as much fun or the gifts as good as the child had hoped.

From around age 6 through the teen years, it is important for parents to take the child’s needs and wishes into consideration in choosing and to give a few gifts the child has expressed interest in. Some families choose to give one “big” gift and then several more small ones just for the fun of opening. A bike or a watch or a cell phone (for the older child) can be the “big” gift. The expectation that there will be just one major gift helps kids to be realistic about what is coming and to really appreciate the one big thing they have asked for and received.

Of course it is worth setting up some traditions that do not involve gifts. Cookie baking is fun for kids starting in toddlerhood and going up through teen years. Children can gradually take on more responsibility for the baking and may get great pleasure out of giving the cookies as gifts or in serving them to others.

Making their own holiday cards or holiday decorations is also fun for kids. But don’t get carried away. Looking online for crafts projects can be deadly; taking on complicated projects or feeling that one must keep up with the hand knitted sweater or homemade buche de noel recommendations made by certain blogs will result most often in failure and frustration. Making simple things – snow flakes or thank you cards is easy, fun and sufficient.

Creating music is also a fantastic way to celebrate. For those children who play instruments, planning a holiday concert for family members or putting on a play or skit can be fun. Decorating the house can also be enjoyable as is helping to cook the holiday meals.

And what about gift giving BY children? At what point do we expect our children to start giving back? This is another important question to reflect upon – what do YOU think?

Choosing gifts and holiday projects for children can be fun and bring great joy – and especially so after there has been some planning, reflection and thought.


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