When our kids were little (and we only had a few of them), we made a pretty big mistake. We bought into the notion that good parents lavish their children with gifts. Every birthday and every Christmas, it was a smorgasbord of toys for our family. Each year seemed to get more expensive and more elaborate. Until one Christmas. That was the year that we let our kids open their Christmas presents, and it was like unleashing the starving hounds from their cages to devour a plate of meat. Our kids were tearing packages open, ripping wrapping paper, toys and tinsel were flying everywhere. It was a real frenzy.
But then, once it was all over and there were no more presents to unwrap, one of our kids voiced this complaint: “Is that all?”
Here they were, with hundreds of dollars’ worth of toys and gifts, and all they could think about is “is there more”?! That really disturbed me and my wife. Not only were our kids not appreciative of the gifts they received, they didn’t even know who had given them. There were no thanks being given. No, it was all selfish, greedy, entitled grabbing. And they still wanted more!
Kind of the opposite of what we wanted to teach our children.
The problem is, we live in a rich society. There’s an unspoken expectation that good parents give their kids everything, at least at Christmas time. Yet years ago, my wife was talking to an elderly woman who said that wasn’t how it was when she was a kid. 50 years ago, you got one present, and it was usually homemade. Maybe a doll or a carved wooden toy or a quilt. You were not given dozens of presents costing hundreds of dollars.
Simplify Gift Giving
So, my wife and I decided to change. We decided to simplify Christmas. We were doing well financially, but we opted to limit our spending on our kids. $50 per kid. That’s it. And only one present.
Some really cool things came out of that decision.
First, there was no more pressure to spend exorbitant amounts on our kids.
Second, because we were only getting one gift, my wife and I worked hard to make sure that one gift was special and unique and valuable to the child receiving it. Instead of focusing on quantity, we focused on quality.
Third, the gifts we gave had more purpose. We opted to give our kids gifts that would help them develop their particular talents or interests. I recall finding a really nice sewing machine (lightly used) for my daughter Tia, so she could pursue the sewing that she loved. Or we bought a MIDI piano so that another one of our children could record their music onto the computer. Gifts like that had a lot more meaning than the stuff we were buying before.
Family Gift Exchange
We also opted to change how we ran our family gift exchange. It used to be that we would put everyone’s names into a hat and randomly get assigned to buy a gift for another family member. We would not set a dollar limit, and some years the kids would get some really neat (but expensive) gifts for their siblings. This left other siblings, who perhaps did not have as much spending power as the older ones, to feel left out or gypped. There was an underlying uneasiness that a gift may not measure up compared to someone else’s. Some gifts were really expensive and gaudy, while others were pathetic in comparison. Think “new iPhone” versus “painted rock from the back yard”. It was awkward.
So, we changed. We limited the dollar amount to $5. That was all anybody could spend on the gift exchange. And it made a difference. The kids got pretty creative with their money. They would make something by hand with inexpensive supplies or find something for cheap at the Goodwill store that was just what their sibling needed. They had to put more thought into the gifts. It was exactly the type of behavior we as the parents wanted. In fact, I still have the framed poem from my daughter Tia and the golf-tee tic tac toe board from my son Falcon.
With these new limitations, Christmas got back to being about giving, not receiving. Our kids were beginning to understand the value of giving a gift. And it was really neat. Because they had spent so much time and energy trying to figure out the perfect gift for their assigned family member, they ended up appreciating the gift they received on Christmas a lot more.
There was no more “is that all?” complaints, and there was a genuine feeling of mutual respect and giving in our home.
The Role of Gifts
I’m reminded of that great moment in the movie “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, where Father Christmas appears. He proceeds to give the Pevensie children gifts. But they weren’t toys or trinkets or stocking stuffers. No, they were real, meaningful gifts. Lucy gets a healing vial, Susan gets a bow and arrows, and Peter gets a sword and shield. Each of the gifts would prove useful and essential to their individual missions in the story. Father Christmas even remarks: “These are tools, not toys.”
One of the most thoughtful presents I ever received was actually from my father. I had been working on fixing up our very run-down home in Burbank. I was removing walls, replacing old wiring, fixing plumbing, patching the roof, and more. My father came to visit one time and saw what I was doing. That Christmas, he bought me a DeWalt bag of tools.
Those tools were exactly what I needed but hadn’t even considered purchasing for myself. First, I did not have the money, but secondly, I did not realize I needed the nicer tools than what I had been using. It was not until I started using the new tools that I realized what a difference they made in my work. I made everything easier and better. My cuts were cleaner with the new saw, I didn’t strip nearly as many screws with the impact driver, and the Sawzall made demolition go a lot faster and easier. I even learned to use the cutoff tool. I was very grateful.
That is what gifts should look like: tools for making life easier and better. I really like that sentiment. Give your kids tools, not toys. Tools can still be gifts, but they are much more useful than plastic junk that only entertains. I think we as parents may want to rethink our gift-giving and try to choose gifts that are more in line with helping our kids be better people.
When Gifts Bite Back
But what if someone else steps in and starts giving gifts to your family and children? What to do then? We will cover that topic in our next blog, “When Gifts Bite Back”.
What about you? Do you agree? Disagree? Does Christmas cause anxiety for you? What about birthdays? Or anniversaries? Leave a comment below.