< Back

This holiday season, reduce the packages to help kids succeed

Categories: Best Practices

Click here to watch Tami Silverman's interview on the impact of overindulging children

The ideals of the holidays – sharing special faith traditions and spending time with family and friends – can easily be overshadowed by the barrage of advertisements, sales and the pressure to deliver the perfect gifts for our kids.

The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend an average of $935 this year for the holidays. How often do we hear, or have, conversations about the need to cut back on presents? It’s never too late to refocus our holiday efforts on giving to others. In fact, many experts say that’s exactly what we need to do in order to raise happy, empathetic and resilient kids.   

Try asking the children in your life to name their favorite gifts from last year. Chances are they may only remember a couple. Overindulgence, even when well-intentioned, can have serious consequences for children.

According to research highlighted in Psychology Today, giving children too many gifts can lead to increases in destructive behavior, lower self-esteem and decreases in overall happiness. Whether called overindulgence, materialism or spoiling, it often starts at a young age and continues through childhood and adolescence. While unwrapping a stack of gifts may seem joyful, child development experts say the effect is short-lived and often leads to increasing requests and demands for more. Conversely, teaching our children the value of delayed gratification and self-control can create lasting benefits.

At the Indiana Youth Institute, there’s a growing numbers of requests to help youth workers, educators and parents with building self-discipline, resilience or “grit” in our kids. According to psychologist Dr. David Walsh, former president of the National Institute on Media and the Family, “There’s research showing that self-discipline is twice as strong a predictor of school success as intelligence.”

The holidays are an ideal time to help our children learn self-control by helping them manage their impulses and behavior. Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg, in the American Academy of Pediatrics book “Building Resilience in Children and Teens,” suggests that parents must overcome our impulses to over-purchase. We need to teach our children that some items must wait for special occasions, some must be earned, and some are simply out of bounds. Not only it is okay for us to say “no” to some of our children’s requests, it’s also beneficial.

How can we keep the celebratory feelings of the holidays without overindulging our children? Obviously, gifts are not the only way to celebrate. Experts from Psychology Today suggest that we set gift limits, focus on esteem-building gifts, and teach the joy of giving.

Instead of increasing the number of gifts each child receives, focus on both the items and experiences that will create lasting memories. The overarching goal is to build thoughtfulness and gratitude, while also setting clear boundaries for gift-giving.

“Kids need to learn how to be contributors and not just takers,” Walsh states. Involve children in selecting gifts for others such as grandparents or teachers. Both adults and children often report greater happiness in giving gifts than in receiving them.   

Look for ways to engage your children beyond the presents. Have them help put up decorations. Involve your child in activities such as singing at the local nursing home, or collecting coats and food for others. Arrange a day for them to help grandma bake the traditional cinnamon rolls or decorate cookies. Some families give their children a modest “donation allowance,” which the kids then distribute to their favorite charities. Have your child write a thank-you note to a special coach, mentor or neighbor. Help them to understand that these activities and contributions need not only be made around the holidays. Whatever the activity, the idea is to help children build connections with both family and community.     

The holidays can be a wonderful time of the year, and a bit of indulgence is expected. Yet overindulgence, especially when it comes to gifts, can actually be harmful to children. Especially at this time of year, our kids need us to model both generosity and self-control. By engaging our kids in creative ways to celebrate and connect with others, we can create new family traditions beyond gifts. Raising thoughtful, grateful and resilient children takes practice and constant reinforcement. Even when Santa’s coming to town.  

Tami Silverman is the president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. She may be reached at iyi@iyi.org or on Twitter at @Tami_IYI

Click here for research and resources on overindulging children and how parents can learn to say no.