Control is one of those words that gets a bad rap. Framed in this light it can sound commandeering, domineering, an effort made by someone too high- strung or Scrooge-like to value the magic of holiday gift giving. Attempts to reign in gift giving, and deemphasize the consumerism of the season don’t have to be strict or strident, but I see real value in them being clear.
Every year, I receive countless requests, mostly from parents of young children, for advice on navigating the abundance of the holiday season with little kids. I’ve included a few past pieces I’ve written on the subject at the end of this piece, and here, I’m sharing the three central tenets I’ve distilled over the past five years of navigating holiday gifts and kids.
I agree with conventional thinking that it’s impossible to dictate every aspect of your parenting hopes and dreams to your extended family and have them understand them. This is true of parenting generally, of course, and it can become especially poignant around gift giving. Still, the impossibility of reaching 100% understanding doesn’t mean it’s not a conversation worth broaching.
If gift giving is a subject you feel strongly about, my best advice is to talk early and openly and to let your family know that you’re making efforts to keep things simple. I’ve found the most success with offering positive ideas or guidelines rather than negative ones. Instead of saying a general “no plastic and no junk,” which will likely elicit eye rolls at best and straight-up defiance at worst, I suggest particulars that I know my children are really hoping for: a specific art supply, or a cooking utensil, or dress-up item. If there’s something that was a hit in a past year, I try to reconfirm the success of that gift, reminding a beloved family member, for instance, that my kids adored the winter pajamas they received the year before and how thrilled they’d be with a new set. If I feel like my tiny apartment simply cannot accommodate one more physical item, I encourage the idea of offering an experience like museum passes, or tickets to see a favorite movie, or the gift of a special one-on-one cup of cocoa.
And while I generally try to stick to the positives, if there’s something specific that we don’t need or want—in my house it’s children’s items emblazoned with trademarked characters—I try to be direct about that, too.
If efforts at offering guidelines fail, I still think it’s important to remember that you’re still in charge of your own space and the things that come into it. Parents can help kids sort through their toys (see also!) and help them to recognize and decide what kinds of things get used and loved the most.
Resources and money are not limitless and kids learn pretty quickly what’s possible and what isn’t in their particular families. Indeed, I’d say that helping kids to understand limits is a central part of parenting. If you have a child, like I do, who loves strolling through the Christmas aisle at the neighborhood drug store and drooling over bedazzled Santa hats and singing reindeer, acknowledge the interest, embrace the gawking, revel in the moment of joy, but feel free to set a limit about what you might actually welcome into your home. Interest in does not always equate with ability to have.
And if a bedazzled Santa hat does wend its way into your home via an indulgent relative, try to remember that most of these things are, indeed, temporary. (Permission to privately shake your fist and curse the capitalist system that makes so many cheap, shiny things at great cost to people planet.) In all of this, I’ve found that it’s important for me to try to stay somewhat flexible. Faye found a set of Minnie Mouse ears outside of our apartment one day and I knew that making a big deal out of not letting her bring them inside would be more problematic than simply agreeing to bring them inside, give them a good wash, and let her play. The ears are still zipped into the pouch where we keep headbands and masks. They’re occasionally played with, mostly forgotten, and one day we’ll do a clean out of the pouch together and she’ll do some gatekeeping herself and decide whether or not to keep them.
Finally, and most important of all, in all things, I try to remember gratitude. Receiving a gift that makes me feel seen and understood and cared for is pure magic, and it’s something I aim for in my own gift giving, but not every gift will hit every mark. That’s okay.