Five tips to stop spoiling kids at holidays

Posted November 21, 2007
Updated November 21, 2008

Is it possible to get through the holidays without hearing "I want," "I want," "I want?"

Although Christmas and Hanukkah are often intended for gathering with family, reflecting on the past year and observing religious traditions, it's easy for parents to get tangled up in ribbons and bows as they try to grant their child's every material wish.

Anna Fader, who runs the New York-based parenting blog Mommy Poppins (, says she was recently overwhelmed by the thought of Christmas.

"There's all this pressure to participate in this thing, and you feel like your kids have expectations," Fader said.

But, she realized, "the reality is we all set our kids' expectations."

Experts say parents have more control than they may realize over the selfishness of the holidays. Here's some advice for moms and dads who want to separate cheer from greed this season and avoid spoiling their kids.



What your kids say they want might be based on an advertisement or something their peers own. Parents can use their older, wiser perspective to make better-informed purchases, says Alan E. Kazdin, incoming president of the American Psychological Association.

He suggests items that inspire family time - like board games, certificates to local theme parks or books on tape - and gifts that contribute to a skill or value the parent would like their child to have, like a musical instrument or horse-riding lessons.

"The parent should think about the agenda of their own," he says. "Not all gifts have to have vision with them, but get a little more inspired than just following the ads."



If you think kids like to receive, watch them experience the magic of the other side, experts say.

"You can really get your kids excited about the giving process," says Fader, 37. She and her 8- and 4-year-old children make dog biscuits for their neighbors every year.

Kazdin suggests taking your children to the store to buy items for others their age - relatives or those in need - or to take a book donation to the library.

Dale McGowan, Atlanta-based author of "Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion," says even nonreligious parents can find meaning in the holidays beyond materialism.

"(Kids) are in a constant state of receiving," he says. "But if you give them a chance to experience the satisfaction of being the generous one, they just vibrate with excitement."



Remember, mom: You aren't Santa Claus. Just because your daughter's been good all year, it's not your job to give her every last item she wants, according to the pros.

"It's OK for parents to say 'no,'" says parenting expert Mary Muscari, who co-wrote upcoming books in the "Everything Book" series about raising adolescent boys and girls.

Muscari recommends putting a dollar limit on how much you're going to spend, and then sticking to it. Feel free to let your children in on the amount so they know what to expect, she says. If it helps, consider how short-lived the thrill of receiving can be.

"Parents now are spending thousands of dollars; they're in debt for months," she says. "Come March, most of these kids probably can't tell you what they got."



Sometimes the most significant things aren't things at all.

"With kids, a lot of the stuff that they get doesn't have any meaning," says Donna Bee-Gates, San Jose-based author of "I Want It Now: Navigating Childhood in a Materialistic World."

"They just open the stuff and they throw it onto the pile," Bee-Gates says.

But there is a gift that won't just go onto the pile: time you spend with them.

That means developing rituals or traditions that involve doing activities together, which they can forever remember and associate with the holidays. Bee-Gates suggests making gingerbread houses or eating breakfast as a family before commencing the gift-opening frenzy on Christmas morning.


It's OK to receive presents, but experts say kids should make the connection between giving and getting. That means acknowledging the generous benefactor.

Bee-Gates recommends declaring "thank-you days." It's a good excuse for another family activity, she says, where kids and parents can design thank-you notes together and write them, giving consideration to details, and the meaning behind the gifts.

"And then you remember, this is what they gave me, this is why it's important to me," Bee-Gates says.


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  • NCMOMof3 Nov 24, 2007

    denverbob, yes, saying no works but at Christmas you do want to give your children something. Or most parents do. I found last year worked extremely well. I hope my post provided parents with another suggestion, as was the articles intention

  • denverbob26 Nov 23, 2007

    Try this tip, learn how to tell your kids: NO

  • NCMOMof3 Nov 23, 2007

    Every parent wants to make their kids happy. Once we realize we are not responsible for our children's every happiness, we can let go of some of that guilt. Every Christmas we would set a budget for each kid but they'd always "want, want, want" and we'd always blow the budget. Last year we tried something new. We set a budget, bought a few things to wrap for under the tree, and gave the rest to the boys in cash, in a nice Christmas envelope, of course. I set a special day for each of them where we went shopping and I treated them to lunch. It amazed me how their list was considerably shortened when they were spending their own money and not mine! It took my youngest son 6 months to spend all of his. He was very particular about what he spent his money on. And we all enjoyed our "special day" out.