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Here's how to rein in your kids' expectations this holiday season

Going broke by making 'holiday magic'? Here's what to do and say before and after the holiday to avoid disappointment and upset, according to experts.
two children opening gifts on christmas morning
None of us are immune from the barrage of media messages that encourage us to spend the holidays away — including our kids. RubberBall Productions / Getty Images

With all its storied magic, the holiday season — and corresponding retail push to buy-buy-buy! — can inspire both generosity and overindulgence. Every year, kids make their wish lists and parents do their best to treat them like to-do lists, because parents usually want to give their kids all the things they never had. But for parents facing financial challenges, the holidays can also bring on a huge wave of guilt about what they can’t do.

According to the 2019 Holiday Retail Survey from Deloitte, American consumers plan to spend close to $1,500 on the holidays per household this year, and 1-in-5 households say they plan to spend less money on the holidays this year. But a YouGov survey says 25 percent of parents are still paying off their holiday gifts from last year.

Whether your family celebrates Christmas, Hanukkah, or anything that involves gift-giving, none of us are altogether immune from the barrage of media messages that encourage us to spend the holidays away — and our kids are not immune to how those messages affect us.

“Children take all of their cues from the adults around them — especially those closest to them,” says Dr. Vanessa Lapointe, registered psychologist based in British Columbia and author of “Discipline without Damage: How to get your kids to behave without messing them up.” “So, the bigger question becomes, what is it about the messages we as parents and others closely involved in the raising of a child inadvertently pass along to our children about expectations and the holidays?”

Similarly, Yalda T. Uhls, founder and executive director of the UCLA Center for Scholars and Storytellers, and author of “Media Moms and Digital Dads,” says if your kids have built up a lot of expectations around the holidays, it can help to take a step back and look at your holiday "stuff" before tackling theirs. “A child can tell if a parent feels shame or guilt around not having material things, so checking your own feelings and making sure you are OK with this is essential to helping your child's own feelings and expectations,” she says. “Were you always so worried when you were a child that you wouldn’t get what you really wished for as a present? Or, are you trying to recreate or relive your own wishes and joys as a child and have now had this trickle down in some way?”

Being present and giving your kids love and safety does much more for a child than giving them things.

Yalda T. Uhls

It certainly doesn’t help that we live in a world where toy unboxing videos are actually a thing. Uhls says the reason kids find all this vicarious gift-receiving so addictive is that it literally gives their brain a rush. “Things that we associate with pleasure, like eating chocolate, seeing a friend or getting gifts, are associated with a release of dopamine in the reward system (of the brain),” says Uhls. “Most children know the pleasure of getting a gift, and a real-life kid opening a present is very easy for a young child to relate to.”

How to keep your kids expectations in check

So, with magical thinking and unboxing videos to contend with, how’s a parent to manage their kids’ holiday expectations?

Express that you value experiences more than things

Even the most innocuous comment you make to your kids can convey your beliefs. Uhls says it’s important to take every available opportunity to remind your kids that things are … just things. “With young kids, role modeling and narration can help you demonstrate that you don't care about things, but care more about family time. When you get a present, say it's nice to have this ‘useful’ thing, and then narrate that the gift makes you happy more because it shows someone is thinking of you than the actual gift. Voice that things only make people happy temporarily, but family, friends and experiences are more important than toys and gifts,” she says.

Set expectations with “swagger”

Lapointe says, when setting expectations about what might be found under the tree or exchanged near the menorah, it helps to adopt an attitude that’s “matter of fact, up front and full of swagger.” “This means that you speak confidently and with a ‘no questions’ kind of certainty about you,” she says. “It might sound something like ‘my loves, here’s how it is going to go for us for Christmas and gifts this year. It will be fun for you to make a list of things you really want. You can ask for one thing to read, one thing to wear, and one thing you want. All of those things have to add up to less than $$$.’ Switch this script up to fit whatever kind of guidelines work for your family. If there is disappointment or upset, don’t make your child right or wrong, and certainly do not make apologies. Just listen to them actively and empathetically, so they feel heard. And change nothing.”

Let the post-holiday-let-down feelings flow

When all the gift-giving excitement winds down, some kids can get a case of the Sundays that lasts for days. “Think of feelings like a wave. The key with messy feelings is to let them flow,” explains Lapointe. “Just create all sorts of space for those emotions to exist and you will all move on in a much healthier, steady state. When we try to explain them away, shut them down or make them all better, we actually do our children (and ourselves) a disservice. They are meant to be felt so that they can fully move through us, and then we can move on from them.”

Prep for a smooth re-entry

Lapointe says the key to avoiding post-holiday let-down is to ease your kids back to reality, very slowly. “We often see a huge upswing in referrals to my large child psychology practice right after the holidays because the switch back into routine is such a challenging one,” she says. “Deal with this head on by embracing regular schedules in terms of bedtime and meals about five days before school re-entry. Dial everything down. Not only will this help get everybody back into their routine, it will also bring a little more peace and quiet to your holiday experience.”

And remember, the most priceless gift you can ever give your kid is your time. “Being present and giving your kids love and safety does much more for a child than giving them things,” says Uhls. “Things are easy to give when you have money. Love and attention are what your child really wants from you. If you give them that, you are doing really well.”


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