Spoiling Our Young Over the Holidays Is Not Inevitable

How to prioritize gratitude over consumption this holiday season.

Posted Dec 19, 2019

Uncle Devert asked the Pruett boys what we wanted for Christmas. Being the youngest, I reeled off my list first.

“Don’t ask for so much! Santa has a lot of other children to think about besides you!” I was seven when my nine-year-old brother stunned me with that rebuke. I had been pretty sure he knew the truth about the old guy, and it wasn’t good. But I loved believing and thought it in my best interest to continue doing so. In those dozen or so words, however, he affirmed his own belief while simultaneously trashing me for my greediness in the face of Santa’s obligation to consider other children’s needs.

Never again did I compile a Christmas list, thanks to my brother’s valuable insight (siblings rule), and to this day, I think such lists are a setup for a lot of things that go wrong over the holidays. I do mean holidays; Eid, Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah show signs of contamination from Christmas excess. Here are some considerations to protect your children from spoiling and the glut of the Amazon.coms:

  • Prevention undermines spoiling. It might be too late for this season, but a cross-generational gratitude attitude should be part of daily family life, not just for one season. These days, this requires a conscientious effort and persistent role-modeling by parents since it currently receives little societal support.
  • Set a budget at the beginning of the season for gifts, holiday events and experiences, festive food, travel, number of gifts from relatives and the burden of all this on the planet. Of course, you’ll blow by it, but it helps to create some sense of control and a reason to say “enough” that is based in reality instead of needing to be seen as nice and giving. Gluttony hates budgets.
  • Consider activity gifts for any age that include the giver and giftee in a mutually interesting and enjoyable activity, such as a cooking class, modest travel, sporting activities, and cultural experiences. Young children learn more about the value of the gifts of time and attention from such activities than from anything they will ever unwrap.
  • Tradition overshadows any gift. It’s probably the most valuable of all, and it’s spoil proof. It’s what we remember as we age: not what we got, but what we did together and why it mattered to us. Enjoy holiday music, but don’t start until after Thanksgiving so you’re not relieved to see it end. Enjoy your cultural and religious or spiritual events, home decoration legacies and food rituals (Pruett’s favorite ongoing ritual is gingerbread boys with red hot eyes and buttons that started in an Oklahoma oven in the 1940s, only grandparents and grandchildren in the kitchen).
  • Engage kids with the giving side throughout the holiday and not just when they give the stuff they don’t want to the homeless shelter. Involve them early in the holiday to think about kids who have less than they do and how they might like to give. These are important moments for us to discuss with our kids the enormous difference between what they want versus what they need.
  • Movies have become tradition keepers and rewatching favorites together at this time of year pulls us toward things we don’t talk enough about with our kids: hope, gratitude, kindness, peace, generosity, forgiveness and grace, to name a few. Our favorites have evolved over the years, but typically include Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Polar Express, It’s a Wonderful Life, and A Christmas Carol.