For our twins’ first Christmas, the pile of presents under the tree surrounded the entire tree and stacked up halfway. That was just the presents for the boys. Gift giving is a holiday tradition for many families but with new children, it can easily feel excessive. For their second Christmas, we decided to minimize presents as much as possible, especially from us, and do our best to teach them charity and gratitude instead. It’s going very well.
My family loves giving presents. Since our boys are the first grandchildren (and great-grandchildren on my dad’s side), they like to spoil the boys. We also tend to get a lot of presents, both new and old from my wife’s family. They have three boys just a little older than ours, so we get a lot of lightly used hand me downs too. Instead of getting rid of this, we chose to attempt to instill a sense of re-use and understanding of the value of things. They’re too young to fully understand it, and certainly don’t understand the environmental cost of new items, but I want them to start seeing it early. In the materialistic, use once and replace culture we live in, I believe our children should be taught to reuse and maintain their possessions.
I think it was Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis I first read about declining presents for their kids. As pretty successful parents, it’s probably fairly easy for them to spoil their kids. With staff, they probably don’t have to deal with the repercussions as much either. However, they are acting as great role models for other parents by setting an example of declining presents for their kids and asking family to do so as well. They use the opportunity to show their kids that quality matters more than quantity, and to appreciate the things they do have. They even take some of the gifts they do receive and donate them to charity, teaching their kids valuable lessons about giving and helping those in less fortunate situations.
It would be easy to go overboard with presents for our twins. We could easily get two of everything so they each have their own version of toys. Instead, we stick to just one for them to share, showing them how to play together or find something else to occupy themselves. Sure, we have times where they both want the same thing at the same time, and start getting upset, but we use these as learning opportunities to teach them how to move on and resolve the issue. For the times we have these issues, we have almost as many times where one of them goes over and offers the other a toy. Sometimes we even have to stop them because their well meaning attempt causes harm like when one of them started accidently hitting the other on the head repeatedly while trying to share a toy. It’s really the thought that counts.
Even with just one of each toy, we end up with a lot of items. We get toys from the boys’ cousins who have outgrown them, but tend to be careful with their toys, so they are almost new. Our friends and family also love to give them gifts of toys. We’re the first among most of our friends to have kids, and the first in our families other than their three cousins. Because of this, the boys get a lot of attention and gifts. Instead of giving them everything at once, we put gifts away and stagger giving them to the boys throughout the year.
For their first birthday, they got a massive pile of new toys. While we let them open them, we ended up putting nearly everything up on the shelf. When they got bored with a toy, we would pull out one of the new ones to keep them entertained and busy. As soon as a new toy came out though, we’d retire the toy they were bored with or had got too old for. This ensured we always had something new to entertain them, but also keep our living room mostly under control with toy clutter.
Our world has moved into the digital in our day to day lives, and it’s even trickled down to our kids. Toys are more electronic, digital, and even connected now. We’ve tried to minimize the amount of these type of toys too, and keep the majority of toys analog. For young children especially, having toys that are physical and durable, in my opinion at least, helps form connections with the real world that digital toys abstract away. A wooden toy or one with real moving parts provides learning in ways that screens just cannot. Because of this, we’ve tried to guide the gifts that we do still receive to focus less on technology, and more on the physical world. The boys will get plenty of exposure to technology as they get older.
One additional tradition we’ve started for their birthday and Christmas is selecting a gift to be donated to charity. Since their birthday falls in the middle of the summer, it splits up perfectly with Christmas. On both occasions, we let the boys, well for now since they can’t pick, we pick for them, pick one gift to give away. We hope that as they get older, they’ll actually start to pick the gifts that seem most interesting, rather than those they aren’t interested in, showing that they actually understand the value of charity and the purpose of giving to others.
By asking the boys to pick one item to donate, we show them that there are others in less fortunate situations than them and that giving charitably is part of the responsibility of those who are fortunate. It’s also a great way to show them that not everyone’s the same or equal, and that it isn’t because of their fault. People are often handed their lot in life and for many people, it’s a lottery. The boys are fortunate to have great lives and the opportunities they get, so showing them the difference in what others have is a way to keep them grounded and teach them appreciation for it.
We started this tradition, as well as refraining from gifts early on in their lives on purpose. Starting now, before they are old enough to remember previous holidays helps us set their expectations early. Instead of year after year of expecting a ton of presents, we are teaching them that it’s normal to get a few things, but that the focus of the day is on time with family. They don’t know any other way of spending the holiday, and have never formed the expectation that there will be a huge pile for them. Instead of a morning spent opening tons and tons of presents, we let them open whatever they did happen to get, then quickly move on to the rest of the day, quickly resuming our normal morning routine of getting ready. The only difference to a normal day is that instead of going to daycare, we head to see family. This also teaches them the importance of family, especially on special event days. The day is focussed much more on spending time with extended family than gift opening.
Speaking of family, the hardest adjustment to make has been getting family to embrace this shift in our family dynamic. I grew up receiving tons of presents as a kid. Our families just want to embrace the boys with as many gifts as possible, and we’ve had to be strategic about changing this. Instead of asking them not to give anything, we’ve asked them to limit the gifts to one or two items only. We even created an Amazon list for each event and keep it small and focussed on things they really need or a few well reviewed toys that we can save for them for later. This has largely worked, but we still end up with a lot. We’ve also tried suggesting charitable donations in lieu of toys.
We really want to do our best to prevent raising a-holes. We don’t want to raise bratty, spoiled kids who just want everything and don’t appreciate what they have. Instead, we are doing what we can to raise grateful kids who really value what they have as well as what they don’t. Wanting something for some time without immediately getting it is a valuable lesson in patience and appreciation and makes finally getting it so much better. As a self avowed gadget nerd and addict, I all too often catch myself getting something shiny and new as soon as possible rather than waiting to see if I really need it. I’ve gotten better, but want to start my kids from a better point than me, because after all, aren’t we as parents supposed to give our kids better opportunities than we had?
By eschewing massive piles of toys for the boys, we are raising them early to appreciate what they have and be grateful for the new things they get. By saving up new toys instead of immediately handing them over, we buy ourselves more afternoons of entertainment and novelty with toys instead of letting the boys get quickly bored with the influx of new items. If the true meaning of Christmas is practicing charity, gratitude, and appreciation, this strategy promises to restore the real meaning to our family. It also shifts the focus back to enjoying time with family and loved ones instead of material greed. It might be time to stop with the presents too.