'Tis the Season to Be ... Greedy?

If Ho-Ho-Ho has been replaced With More-More-More, try these tips to give your children holiday gifts to last a lifetime.

By Sid Kirchheimer
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

Seeing red from all that green you think is needed to feed Christmas greed? Maybe you could learn something from the Johnson kids.

While their neighbors spent the morning of "Black Friday" battling the chaos and each other for those early-bird specials at the local mall, just like millions of other Americans, these two elementary school students kicked off the first day of the Christmas shopping season as they have done for the past two years -- scouring the racks of a Goodwill thrift store in a tony suburban Philadelphia strip mall with their mother.

Sixth-grader Megan scored a seemingly new designer sweater and a freshly washed Eagles football team T-shirt for her father. Jason, two years younger, grabbed three barely worn shirts and a new Pez dispenser for his sister when she wasn't looking.

They left with a bulging bag, three dollars in change from their $20 bill, and smiles more blinding than the North Pole landscape. And with good reason, says their mom, Sharon, who by no means needs to shop at a second-hand store.

"From a practical standpoint, it's nice that they can buy really nice gifts for the family without using all their allowance money. And let's face it, some of what we just bought is as nice as what's at the mall -- without the price or the hassles," she tells WebMD. "But beyond money, what's the real point of that turkey dinner we just had? It's about being thankful for what we have ... and recognizing how fortunate we are to have it. At least, it should be."

Megan chimes in to complete this Hallmark moment. "My dad loves the Eagles, so I know he'll love this shirt, and it was $15 cheaper than one I saw at [a sporting goods store], and I still have $24 left for my other presents. But what's really nice is that the money we spent on this stuff will help people who have less than we do."

Sound familiar? Well, it could -- and it should, say experts.

"Just look around, and you'll see that the attitude of wanting more and more is not only common, but unfortunately, has become part of the culturally accepted norm," says psychiatrist Ravi Amin, MD, of Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn. "But it doesn't have to be that way. The trick is for parents to use the holiday season as a way not to satisfy their children's greed, but to instill values and integrity to last a lifetime."

How? The easy answer, of course, is the one that proves especially hard for many parents -- just saying "no" when presented with a Christmas want list that reads like War and Peace or gifts with price tags that could make Donald Trump sweat.

"But saying 'no' to children is very much a part of healthy development and important for a child's growth, so you might as well as get comfortable with it," says Amin. "Children need to realize they don't always get what they want, but their lives and holiday can still be happy."

The trick is to do it the right way, with these strategies that can calm holiday greed without removing the joy of the season.

  • Divert them with what they really want. Kids may tell shopping mall Santas that they want the latest video game or other expensive toy du jour, but what do they tell experts? "Studies indicate that what kids really want is to spend more time with their parents," says pediatrician Marilyn Heins, MD, author of ParenTips and the former host of a long-running Arizona radio show on effective parenting.

    So a $10 soccer ball may be better received than the latest sports video game, as long as it comes with a promise of parental play. "It's not enough to just give your child a ball and send them outside," says Amin. "You have to say, 'Let's go outside and play together.'"

  • Use your head -- and their hands. All it takes is some cash to buy the perfect gift, but it takes your schmoozing ability to create one -- while also feeding your child's self-esteem. If your son likes art, you may suggest he use his Van Gogh-like abilities to paint personalized pictures for each family member; if your daughter likes words, you could mention her gift for writing poems that will be cherished long after the holiday lights are packed away.

    "Anything you can do to validate their interests and abilities helps build their esteem and takes their mind off themselves, not to mention being less financially burdensome," says Amin. "These kinds of gifts are wonderful substitutions for store-bought presents -- not only for their personal value, but also because they require creativity. They are enormously rewarding not only to the receiver, but also the giver."

  • Write a different kind of promissory note. Come New Year's Day, the new high-priced toy may be forgotten, but this timeless classic won't be: A coupon book, redeemable for the entire year, that's packed with IOUs for your child's favorite toy-less activities. January might include a coupon good for 30 minutes of "Daddy wrestling" while February could feature a basement tea party or impromptu "show." Other months could include trips to their favorite park, driveway basketball games, or even time off from chores such as emptying the garbage or setting the dinner table.
  • Indulge their fantasy, but keep it real. So you have a young one who still believes in Santa Claus and his unlimited resources for providing gifts to all those "good" boys and girls? "Fantasies like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy are healthy for young children, but their purpose is to keep them in reality -- not to make them happy," says Heins. "I can't believe that any 3-year-old would sulk on Christmas morning because 'Santa' didn't bring him everything he asked for, and by elementary school, children know they don't get everything they want just because they behaved."

    She recommends that when long and expensive wish lists are presented, you warmly present the cold facts -- that as deserving they are because of good behavior, they will likely only get one or two choice items, but will still enjoy a cool Yule.

  • And when they complain? Do they really need to prove their schoolyard worth with a pair of $100 sneakers that their peers got? "Explain that it's OK to be different and that having those sneakers doesn't make them a better person," says Amin. "You could say, 'Maybe Johnny next door got those expensive sneakers, but it was you who scored two goals in the last game -- not him. Make them realize that what is unique about them isn't what they own, but what they have inside."

Originally published Dec. 8, 2003.

Medically updated Oct. 18, 2004.


SOURCES: Ravi Amin, MD, associate chair, department of psychiatry, Long Island College Hospital, New York. Marilyn Heins, MD, pediatrician, Tucson, Ariz.; author, ParenTips; former host, The Parenting Show, KNST radio, Tucson. Sharon, Megan, and Jason Johnson, Oaks, Pa.

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