A number of you have written in to ask about how to help your children be happy with a lower-key, fewer-presents sort of Christmas, so that’s what we’ll talk about today.
I’m not sure when our current level of gift-giving came to be the norm, but throughout history, children have managed to happily celebrate Christmas with a whole lot less in the way of presents.
Whenever I read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, I am always struck by how few presents she received. She didn’t have 20 packages to open, and yet, she was still delighted by Christmas. Because her expectations were pretty low, she was thrilled with what she received.
I think a large part of our children’s problem is that their expectations are too high. And when that’s the case, giving more and more every year won’t fix the problem.
Amy Dacyzyn talks about something in The Tightwad Gazette that I think is relevant here. She says if you take your children out for ice cream and they’re not pleased unless they get something bigger and better every time, the solution is not to buy them more ice cream, but to buy them less. If you get a cone every day, then you’ll start hankering for a larger cone, a banana split or a milkshake. But when the ice cream treats are fewer and farther between, a simple ice cream cone looks quite delectable.
Amy calls this strategic deprivation, and I think it’s applicable to adults as well as children (for instance, if I got a Tazo chai latte every day, it would cease to seem marvelous to me. When I drink them only every now and then, I think they’re crazy delicious.)
So. If your children are quite demanding at Christmastime, don’t buy into the idea that you need to buy them more presents, as that will probably just exacerbate the problem.
1. Practice Strategic Deprivation throughout the year.
I think that practicing some strategic deprivation during the non-Christmas season goes miles towards creating lower Christmas expectations.
Buying your children everything they want (or most of what they want) all year long will create a situation similar to our ice-cream-cone-a-day scenario.
For us, this strategic deprivation has happened sort of naturally, because for most of our children’s lives, our income has not allowed us to buy them everything they want. Mind you, they’ve always had the necessities of life, along with a few extras, but their lives have not been anywhere near extravagant.
Because of this, they’ve been quite happy with the number of presents they’ve received, and they’ve also been delighted with some fairly simple presents.
For instance, a few years back, my girls wanted black pea coats like mine, because they are all still young enough to think that looking like me is a good thing (I know these days are numbered!)
They all owned a winter coat, though, which meant I couldn’t really justify buying the pea coats. So at Christmas, when my mother-in-law gave each of them a cute hooded black pea coat, they were all thrilled to pieces (Zoe especially…”Oh! I’ve been wanting and wanting one of these!”)
If they girls had gotten a pea coat when they first saw them, though, they’d probably have wanted something bigger and better at Christmas.
Please know I’m not advocating a cruel sort of deprivation here. We should do our best to provide for our children’s needs, and buying fun things isn’t always a bad idea.
I’m just saying that it’s good for children to learn what it feels like to not get everything they want right away.
2. Establish low-key gift giving from the beginning.
If your children are really young, you have a golden opportunity. Children are not born with an instinctive set of Christmas expectations, so you can set the bar exactly where you want it. You can decide how many presents you want to give, how practical the presents will be, and how much money you want to spend.
Setting appropriate expectations now is a whole lot easier than changing them later on!
3. Talk to your kids ahead of time.
If your children are older, they’ve already learned what to expect at Christmas, so downsizing will be a little bit more difficult.
I do NOT recommend going cold turkey. If you’ve been giving tons of presents, don’t do a 180 this year and give charitable donations in lieu of all the presents. That’s going to go over like a lead balloon and will give your kids a horrible attitude about simplifying Christmas.
The good thing is that children who are old enough to have firm expectations are also old enough to talk to.* So, if you feel like you need to scale back your gift-giving by a significant amount, sit down and have a chat with them ahead of time.
I recommend keeping it as positive as possible.
-If you’re wanting to scale back so that you can do a better job of living debt-free, then go ahead and tell them that.
(as opposed to saying something like, “We don’t have enough money to buy Christmas presents.”)
-If you’re wanting to scale back so that you can give more to people who are less fortunate, say so.
(Don’t say, “Those children in Haiti would be thrilled to get half of what you get! So, since you’re so ungrateful, we’re giving you half as much as last year.”
-If you’re wanting to give fewer gifts so that you can have more time and money to spend on fun holiday experiences, then let them know.
*We don’t do Santa Claus here at Chez Frugal Girl, so I haven’t got great recommendations about how to navigate this without telling your children that you’re the one buying the presents. But I’m sure other readers might.
Regardless of how you go about it, changing expectations ahead of time will go miles towards making things go smoothly on Christmas morning.
This is obviously not an exhaustive post on the topic, so I know I’ve missed some other great ways to lower children’s expectations. If you’ve got a helpful tip (or a tip about what NOT to do!), share it in the comments.
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