Monday 23 October 2017

Are we spoiling our children at Christmas time?

How can you control kids' gift expectations without limiting the magic? Deirdre Rooney spoke to some parenting experts who say the art of appreciation is key

Christmas is a magical time for families, especially for those with little ones whose unrelenting excitement could power Santa's sleigh. Most of that flurry of energy is powered by the expectation that Santa will come good with his side of the wish-list bargain.

Christmas is a magical time for families, especially for those with little ones whose unrelenting excitement could power Santa's sleigh. Most of that flurry of energy is powered by the expectation that Santa will come good with his side of the wish-list bargain.

For a lot of parents, managing that expectation is all about trying to find a balance that cultivates gratitude for what they get, whether it's everything the little ones want or not, rather than an unhealthy belief that one only has to ask in this world to receive.

But that Holy Grail of the happy, thankful child is often complicated by the well-meaning generosity of grandparents and others, for whom Christmas is a time to spoil their loved ones.

One thing is for sure, there's no denying we are a generous, or at least spendthrift, nation when it comes to Christmas. International studies indicate that Irish people spend more at Christmas than people in the United States or any other European country, with only Britain consistently coming close. Last year, revealed that the average Irish parent spends €254 on Christmas presents per child, while 16pc spend up to €600 on each child.

So, what can be done to rein in the spending without curbing childhood enthusiasm? Well, to begin with, you can control children's expectations from the outset.

"I think there should be a limit to the number of gifts Santa brings, as it's important the child thinks about other kids," says Stella O'Malley, psychotherapist and author of Cotton Wool Kids. "Santa can't be lugging around a huge amount of presents for just one child, that's not fair or reasonable.

"In my own family - my daughter Róisín is nine, and son Muiris is seven - we have often discussed how some other kids can be quite demanding. I call it the 'Veruca Salt Blues'. My kids are quite proud that they aren't too greedy at Christmas."

Fixing a budget and sticking to it is also a helpful device, and it's relative to each family's financial capacity. So, just how much is too much to spend?

"Too much is when the parents are borrowing to fund Christmas," says O'Malley. "To give an actual figure would be very difficult - for one family €100 would be too much, while for another family, €200 wouldn't be considered a lot of money."

This disparity in the value of presents that Santa brings to different children can lead to other problems. Santa is all giving to all children, but what do you tell your child if they notice the man himself was a little more giving to the kid next door?

"If children make a comment about comparing the volume of gifts that Santa brings, I would generally encourage a simple conversation about appreciating what we have, and that all families are different and that that's okay," says Aoife Lee, parent coach at Parent Support. "It's really positive to teach our children about the importance of appreciation."

Of course, Santa isn't the only bearer of gifts this time of year. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends are all keen to splurge on children at Christmas. But their kindness and well-intentioned indulging often just adds to the glut of presents little ones receive.

"For most, this can be prevented by having a simple conversation with loved ones about setting a limit for each child. The majority of people are open to change and happy to accommodate," says Lee.

Laura Erskine, mum-in-residence at, says Secret Santa - whereby each individual just buys for one person, as opposed to everyone in a family or group - is a great way to reduce the sheer volume of gifts.

"This gift-giving ritual cuts down on the Christmas spend and saves time as fewer presents need to be bought," Erskine says. "Secret Santa is great fun and is ideal for families with older children."

She also recommends sharing presents. "Instead of buying a number of small presents for children, consider one big family present that they could share - for example, a game."

With all the focus on gifts and Santa lists, children can easily lose sight of the other aspects of the holiday, like charity, the importance of family, gratitude and a little bit of magic. Is the sharp focus on the material side making kids greedy?

"Yes, it is," says O'Malley, "and it's up to the parents to take charge of this or else they will raise greedy and self-centred kids. The parents set the tone in the house and if all the focus and all the 'oohs and aahs' are reserved for expensive gifts, then the kids are learning that money is the most important element of Christmas."

Aoife Lee agrees. "It's up to the parents to set limits and boundaries; children need to know that they can't have everything they want. This goes for many parenting scenarios."

So, where to go from here? You've done all you can to keep the number of gifts your child receives at a reasonable figure, with family and friends and even Santa in on your plan. But it's all a little redundant if the child is unschooled in the art of appreciation. Gratitude is a vital concept to teach. Not only will it make for happier - and more polite - children, but it will also contribute to their development of empathy.

"We can teach children about gratitude by example," says Lee. "Children are watching us all the time, they listen to what we say, see what we do and how we do it. They are influenced by us from very early on. Show your child that you are thankful for what others do and the efforts your child makes, too. Show appreciation for all that is good in your lives."

Children can also learn to appreciate what they have when they realise that not everyone is as fortunate as they are.

"Charity drives can be introduced very early on," says O'Malley. "My own children were seven and five when they walked their first 'Goal Mile' in Birr on Christmas day. Children even younger than that can take part in the Christmas shoebox appeal. Children are by nature usually kind and generous, they actively want to help poorer children, all the adults have to do is give them the opportunity."

Delayed gratification is another notion that can contribute towards both feeling appreciative while also controlling expectations.

"Delayed gratification, and stress tolerance around it, are important life lessons to teach children, and Christmas is a great opportunity to do it - every other child is waiting for Christmas so there is a whole communal delayed gratification going on," says O'Malley. "It's something that most parents have been teaching from a very young age, for example, 'No, you can't have your cake until after your dinner'."

Aoife Lee agrees. "If we think the amount of gifts given over the holiday period in previous years is too much, asking for a small voucher to put towards their own savings to buy that one thing they really want can give a great sense of appreciation."

Top tips for buying toy gifts

Laura Erskine, mum-in-residence at, shares some steps to follow when buying for kids

Check second-hand websites: Children lose interest in toys quickly. By shopping around early on you can find great deals online.

Support kid's development: Santa can bring the special request toys — regardless of educational properties — but gifts from family should support their development.

Don't overwhelm them: So many new toys at once can overwhelm children and make it hard for them to choose which ones to play with. Allow your child to open their presents but then choose which one or two they would like to play with, then put the others away for another time.

Toy credentials: When buying toys, ask yourself the following — is it age-appropriate; is it safe; is it challenging; will it hold the child’s interest; is it durable; is it affordable?

Irish Independent

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