For children, December is a special month filled with nights cuddled on the couch watching holiday cartoons, also really easy to get stressed out over fulfilling everyone’s gift wishes — especially when our own kids are the ones doing the asking.
Watching a child’s face light up as they open a gift they’ve been dying for is really enjoyable. But while Santa Claus isn’t real, our bank accounts are, and sometimes we can’t get our kids everything they want. Still, it can be hard not to see that Christmas list as a list of demands instead of a list of requests. Gift guilt is real, and if you let it, it can take all of the joy out of the season.
Here are some expert strategies will help you leave gift guilt in the trash where it belongs, right next to that fruitcake your cousin sent.
1. Manage their expectations long before the holidays arrive
Explaining to your children in advance that not everyone gets everything they want for the holidays, you’ll go a long way toward preventing a meltdown (and your own guilt spiral) the morning of the holiday. “I’m not a big fan of Christmas ‘lists’ because it implies that it’s a to-do list that will be filled,” says Dr. Ellen Braaten, associate director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Instead, have a discussion with your child about ideas and potential gifts. Talk about why some might be appropriate and some might not.”
2. Let older children in on your decision in advance
For older kids who have an understanding of finances, honesty is the best policy. “If there is an item that’s beyond your family’s budget (or your ability to get in time for the holidays, such as the latest sold-out game system), put it on a list of long-term wishes that you can work toward as a family,” Braaten suggests. “Children don’t generally enjoy surprises as much as adults do and they especially don’t enjoy surprises that involve disappointments.”
3. Relieve Santa of his “naughty or nice” duties
For young children who believe that they’ll get what they want for Christmas if they behave, not getting everything on their wish list could lead them to think they’ve been bad, which could be confusing or upsetting. As tempting as it is to use the old “Santa’s watching you” line as a way to get your kid to behave in the grocery store, unless you’re willing to buy out Toys R Us every year to make your child feel like they’ve been good, it’s better to stop using Santa to do your dirty work. “This whole adult manipulation of something as warm and magical as Christmas into something designed to get kids to fall into line the other 364 days of the year needs to be done away with,” she says.
If you’re guilty of using Santa as a scapegoat, Lapointe has a great idea to shift your child’s focus: “If you have been telling your children about this list all along and need to undo that, then find a creative way — like a ‘news bulletin’ from the North Pole — to take the naughty/nice list right out of the equation.”
4. Know it’s good for kids to experience disappointment
Even though you may feel like the world’s worst parent because you couldn’t find a Hatchimal this year, you’re not. Not only will that toy likely be forgotten about in month, but it’s actually good for your children to not get what they want once in a while. “Not always getting what you want is a good thing,” says Braaten. “It builds resilience and helps us deal with the disappointments that are inevitable in life.”
Lapointe notes that even during the holidays, we’re still parents whose job it is to set appropriate limits for our kids.”Overspending or purchasing items you’d rather they not have does not land you in a place of being on it for your children. The secret at the core of being a parent who is in charge is to truly embody the understanding that you have got this. Part of that is to have appropriate limits in all aspects of life for your children — including gift-giving at the holidays.”