Indulge in Gift-Giving Instincts Without Spoiling Your Kids

With the holidays and the season of giving upon us, it’s hard to not buy, buy, buy for your children. But doing so can lead to a feeling of entitlement or affluenza. Here’s how to make your kids happy without spoiling them, teach kids about giving back, and how to keep the charitable feeling year-rond, not just during the holidays.

Before families sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, stores start selling holiday decorations. With all the hype and commercialism of the extended season, it’s hard to not feel pressure to get your children the most extravagant gifts.

“One kid can’t have a better Christmas than the other one, so you keep upping the ante. The pressure is so much. I start getting a stomachache, like, in November,” said comedian Louis C.K., talking about buying gifts for his daughters in his appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on NBC on Jan. 6, 2014. 

“I actually do think that one Christmas with nothing would make [my kids] more generous, more cautious, and smarter people, so it would actually be good parenting to have one Christmas where [they] get nothing,” he said of not wanting to give in to the contagious gift-buying frenzy. “But I can’t do it. I can’t do what’s right for my kids.”

You don’t need to go to the extreme measure of refraining from giving your children gifts this holiday season to encourage them to be more grateful, more generous beings.

Understand how we got to ‘affluenza.’

Entitled children are not born, they’re made, according to Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., a social researcher with a background in anthropology and author of Primates of Park Avenue, who lives in New York City with her husband and their two sons.

Our modern culture is a time of “ecological relief,” Martin says—meaning we’re not foraging for food, hunting prey, or primarily occupied with matters of survival. “One of the things that means is, that to a completely unprecedented extent, we can invest really heavily in each and every child we have versus the way it was in our evolutionary prehistory when humans had to balance care for their offspring with care for themselves,” Martin says. “They were always playing the numbers game—how much attention can I give this child without dying myself?”

Affluenza,” which “is characterized by a sense of entitlement, an inability to delay gratification, an exaggerated belief in the ability to control one’s life, and a diminished capacity for empathy and compassion,” according to Josh Glawe, LCSW, who provides individual, family, marital, and group therapy in Parsippany, NJ, also stems from the fact that we, as primates, give gifts because we live to make social connections, Martin says.

“We long to belong. We long to build connections and cement relationships, and gifts are one of the ways that we do that. By giving something to someone we say, ‘I value you. I like you. You mean something to me.’ But now, because we live in a state of ecological relief, sometimes we give really lavish gifts,” Martin says. “And we know that most people around the holiday, no matter what their financial situation, give to the outer extent that is possible for them.”

Counteract the ‘gimmes.’

Glawe says the most important step to guard against the escalating effects of entitlement is to recognize the problem and work toward a more balanced view of the role of money and material items to your child, as well as within the family as a whole. Once this has been determined, there are a few easy things you can do with your children to help them become more gracious.

Name your blessings. Beyond counting your blessings, naming them is a great way to reflect on the things you’re grateful for each day. “There are so many ways that you can do that,” says Andrea Reiser, a Westport, CT-based happiness coach and co-author of Letters From Home: A Wake-Up Call for Success and Wealth. Reiser suggests you write your blessings down once a week like she does in her Gratitude Friday blog posts; go around the dinner table and have each family member mention a few things they’re grateful for. Or participate in the “100 Days of Happiness”  challenge by capturing images of things that make you happy or that you’re grateful for 100 days in a row—71 percent of people who tried have cited “lack of time” as the main reason they were unable to complete the challenge. Let’s instill in our kids that making time for happiness is a worthwhile priority!

Show gratitude every day. Be a grateful parent and tell your children why you’re grateful for them. “It models what gratitude is and it also helps them build self-esteem because they realize you love them for certain skills, qualities, and characteristics, and it makes them feel good to know they’re appreciated,” Reiser says.

Parents should also model gratitude by saying “thank you” sincerely and often in your everyday life. “Yes, the grocery store cashier is paid to ring up your order, but say ‘thank you’ to that person just for the interaction that you’ve had with them,” Reiser suggests.

Help children express gratitude. Unfortunately, thank-you notes have sort of disappeared from our culture, Reiser says. “There are so many ways you can make it easier for kids to send thank-you notes, even if it’s a thank-you email, to make the child acknowledge that they received something from someone else and show that they appreciate it,” she adds.

Create a form note for younger kids on which they fill in the blanks for who gave them the gift, what they received, and sign it or maybe draw a picture. Take older kids shopping for their own stationery to send handwritten notes. And remember: A phone call to the giver is a simple way to say thank you, especially in this age of texts.

“I think that gratitude is such a great solution because it kind of counteracts the ‘gimmes’,” Reiser adds. “Really instilling gratitude in kids and living it yourself as a model goes so far to change the entitlement culture.”

Indulge your gift-giving instincts.

So, how can you indulge in some of your gift-giving instincts without spoiling your kids?

Give the gift of time. We live in a very fast-paced, hyped-up culture, so we give lavish gifts because it’s the most efficient way to say “I love you,” Martin says. But the most extravagant, most precious gift you can give your child? Your time.

Martin suggests you give children gift certificates, such as 1 hour of arts-and-crafts with Mommy or the opportunity to help Daddy make dinner. Or give a board game, which is something that will facilitate everyone spending time together, and then commit to a family game night once a week.

“As your child is opening a gift, talk about how using it will allow you to spend time together,” Martin says. “What you’re modeling is that a gift is a route to a social and personal connection.”

Spend money doing rather than having. “I’m huge into giving kids experiences rather than material stuff—spending time instead of spending money, and also asking relatives to do the same,” Reiser says. “It’s so much more meaningful and lasting to have experiences together.”

A recent study by Amit Kumar, Matthew A. Killingsworth, and Thomas Gilovich titled “Waiting for Merlot” found that experiential purchases (spending money on doing) tends to provide longer-lasting happiness than material purchases (spending money on having). So you’ll be happier buying experiences for you and your child, and your child will be happier because you’ll be spending time with him.

Set realistic expectations. The only way to prevent your children from feeling extreme disappointment when they don’t get everything they want is to talk about expectations beforehand. “I grew up celebrating Hanukkah, and we did not get a gift every night for the eight days of Hanukkah, but we knew that upfront,” Reiser says. “Maybe the first and fourth and eighth nights my mom would give us a gift. We didn’t know exactly what nights to expect them, but we knew we weren’t getting something every night, and it just made it more realistic.”

Once you’ve set expectations with your child, share with relatives and ask them to follow suit with you. Reiser adds that there may be some initial disappointment, but you have to remind the child that you discussed expectations beforehand and to appreciate the things they were given.

While it may not be easy during the holidays, Reiser suggests asking your child to participate in purchasing the newest gadget or fashion accessory they want. “Then, they have a little more investment in it, and it’s more rewarding when they finally get to that point where they’ve saved up enough to be able to buy it,” she says.

Keep the charitable feeling year-round.

“In general, I don’t believe that kids act selfishly because they genuinely don’t care about others. It’s more that they aren’t really sure how to help others and give back because they aren’t being taught,” says Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In. “Ultimately, raising children who understand the value of giving back—and whose lives reflect that knowledge—is one of the most philanthropically-minded things parents can do.”

“On the first night of Hanukkah, my mommy gave to me, absolutely

—Alina Adams, New York City mom of 3, recalling on the insolent ditty her kids sang to her when she decided to forego holiday gifts one year in lieu of doing good deeds together as a family; read about her touchingly successful endeavor to teach her children the true meaning of giving.

The best way to teach your children is to set an example for them. Whether it’s donating time, money, or items to an organization, or simply a random act of kindness such as helping an older person with their groceries or taking homemade soup to a sick friend, showing your kids that you take a little time every day to be kind to someone is “going to go just as far as going to a soup kitchen but in a different way that’s profound,” Martin says.

And if you see something happening in a charitable way, Resier says you should point it out to your children so they have real life experiences within their own community.

After showing your children a few ways you give back, get them involved in giving back, too—just keep them interested. Use your kids’ interests to focus on what they might want to do, whether it’s supporting a charitable foundation monetarily or volunteering, Reiser suggests. If your child likes animals, volunteer at the local humane society; if she loves reading, take her to buy and donate books to a literacy foundation.

One way Reiser kept her four sons interested in donating money when they were young was to connect the act to baseball. Each child picked a baseball statistic to follow for the family’s favorite team, the Boston Red Sox. “One of them would pledge one dollar each time Big Papi (David Ortiz) hit a home run. Another might give 50 cents for each strikeout during the month of August. It was a fun way to incorporate an interest of theirs and keep them engaged on how much money we were donating,” Reiser says.

Again, setting expectations is key. “At the end of the day, kids are still kids. You can’t expect them to always want to donate their toys,” Patkin says. “Be conscious of your children’s ages and capabilities, and (without being too quick to exclude them from an activity or event that might not be ‘fun’ from start to finish) keep in mind that your budding philanthropists are still kids.”


Also see:

Holiday Gifts That Benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Three Games That Encourage Kindness