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Holiday Gifts in Challenging Times

by Anita Gurian, PhD and the Staff of the Child Study Center

The joys of the winter holidays are often tempered by the commercial focus of the season; children's catalogs are stuffed into mailboxes; lists touting the best toys of the year fill magazines, and commercials marketing the hottest toys tantalize youngsters. For many weeks, events and celebrations make up the holiday season. Children are surrounded by the material aspects of the holiday: the food, parties, and the presents. For families who have undergone a significant change during the year, perhaps because of a job loss, the need to adjust to a new home, a divorce or other changes in the family, the holiday season can be particularly challenging. In addition, the media often encourage stereotypes of the perfect, joyous holiday in a story book family setting which do not always fit with reality. Although the sales pitches are seductive and the spirit of the festive season contagious, many parents still wonder about making holiday gifts meaningful but consistent with a budget.

In order to make the holidays more fun and the gifts more meaningful, keep in mind the following:

  1. The cost factor is important
    Parents with a limited budget might consider creative ways of getting gifts. Options include gift swapping with friends whose children no longer use a particular item, sharing the cost of expensive dolls, clothes, or electronic equipment with friends or relatives. School-aged children can save their allowance and do extra chores to contribute to a special item. Teens can also save their job earnings. Sharing the cost of a gift is a great opportunity for parents to sharpen their children's consumer skills. Reviewing television commercials and magazine ads teaches children to critique what they see. Giving children a hypothetical amount of money to spend and asking them to fit their wish list into this budget by checking catalogues and web sites helps them be realistic and financially savvy. Many children feel pressured to keep up with the latest fashion or want the toys their friends have. Discussing these issues helps children figure out what they really want and prioritize how to spend their money. Parents should also model cost efficient buying for themselves when with their children.

  2. Planning ahead
    Especially if there has been significant change in the family, such as job loss, drop in income, or change in the family composition, the first holidays after the change can be hard. Often the anticipation is the hardest part. Planning ahead should involve thinking through what to keep or what to change about the family holiday tradition. Thinking and planning for the holidays in advance, being sensitive to children’s feelings, and involving everyone in decision making to the appropriate degree – even children – can ease the transition to new ways of marking the holiday.

  3. The most precious gift parents can give their children is the gift of time
    For many people, the most lasting memories of the holiday season are things they did together such as making cookies, lighting candles, making traditional decorations. Some parents even give a lasting gift of time in the form of coupons for particular times or events redeemable throughout the year. Instead of buying everything, families can spend time together making their own holiday cards or gifts, wrapping presents for teachers, friends and relatives. It's important to point out the special meaning of the time and activities, which pass along this spirit to the next generation of givers

  4. Consider the child’s age and interests
    Keep in mind a child’s age, interests and your own budget when it comes to gift giving. Certain toys and gifts are suitable for children of specific ages. Manufacturers often provide accurate suggested age ranges on toys or store clerks know what appeals to children at different ages. But in addition to the gift itself, consider the reaction of the child receiving the gift. Toddlers revel in tearing wrapping paper but may ignore the gift inside. Overwhelming them with a large variety of gifts is thus unnecessary and unappreciated. They may especially enjoy a series of small surprises or gifts that involve activity either a game to be played alone or in a group. Older children, however, pay more attention to the gift itself and to the culture surrounding particular "hot" gifts; thus they may appreciate a few specifically requested gifts. Regardless of their age, all children may need help maintaining realistic expectations about what they will receive.

  5. Gifts should be tailored to the interests of the child
    Figuring out what to give can be as difficult as deciding how many things to give. Wish lists make the job easier. With the help of an adult or older sibling, even young children can compose a list of the presents they would like. Adults may prefer to give gifts with particular value such as education related materials. But to make any gift a success, it helps to investigate the child's personal likes, dislikes, and abilities. Books, for instance, may not be appreciated by a child who is having trouble learning to read. Knowing a child's favorite color can make the difference between a fleece vest that's worn or ignored. Timing and ease of use are also important, especially when buying gifts for younger children. Pre-schoolers, attuned to the here and now, want to play with their gifts when they get them - and want the batteries to do so. They may be disappointed by a swing set that won't be assembled until spring.

  6. Remember the temperamental style of the child
    Children each have their own particular temperamental style which characterizes their approach to new experiences; they are consistently more shy, active, or easy going. Holiday time and present opening can throw these styles into overdrive, with children of different temperaments coping with and approaching the fuss and festivities in individual ways. Some children become overwhelmed by too much stimulation. Halfway through a pile of gifts they may break into tears just when their parents expect smiles. Moving on to another activity or spacing out the gift giving times may help modulate the stress. Other children may become fussy and short-tempered as Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa approach. Some children become uncomfortable with the change in routine while others can be worried about how their behavior will be judged, thinking they are to be rewarded or punished at the holiday. A surprise treat given before the holiday can help an anxious child wait. Focus on non-gift activities, involve children in the preparations, and keep some semblance of a routine schedule can also help diminish the tension.

  7. Parents can use the holiday season to cultivate the joy of giving
    Projects such as donating money, things or time to a charity can be a yearly family tradition. Giving older children their own individual money to donate to a particular cause of their own choosing also teaches them to take on the responsibility for themselves. For example, starting a family coin collection for the local toy fund, collecting art supplies and warm clothes for needy families, delivering a holiday meal to a sick person are activities for the family to work on together. It will not be long before kids learn wealth comes from what is shared rather than from what is owned.

  8. Parents should be aware of their own feelings as they choose gifts
    Parents have their own history of holiday gift giving and receiving that affects their approach to gift giving with their own children. Some individuals who may have felt deprived of material goods when they were younger, may buy too much for their own children. Others, who may feel depressed during the holidays, may go in the opposite direction and have little motivation to buy any presents. Sometimes parents use gifts to make up for feeling they are absent from their children's lives. Gifts, however, are not a substitute for affection and attention. Divorced couples and step-parents need to be especially careful not to use elaborate gifts as a way of competing for their children's love.
Date Published: December 14, 2000
Date Updated: November 11, 2008