Parents work to deal with holiday expectations

Experts disagree on how much to indulge kids

Chicago TribuneDecember 11, 2012 

CHICAGO — A new car, iPad, iPod and a ping-pong table are the big-ticket items that top Tamara O'Shaughnessy's kids' Christmas wish lists this year.

But O'Shaughnessy said that's all they are: wishes.

With her husband out of work for more than two years and a tight family budget, O'Shaughnessy said her 10, 13 and 17-year-olds know this will be a "much more reasonable Christmas."

"When we were both working, they were given everything on their wish lists," said O'Shaughnessy, 48. "This year we sat down with the kids and said 'Let's look at your list and prioritize.' It's hard to say 'no' to the iPad and iPod, but sometimes it's the little things they'll remember most."

O'Shaughnessy is not alone in having to temper her children's holiday expectations. A Nielson Survey recently found nearly half of children ages 6 to 12 put an Apple iPad on their holiday wish lists this year, for example. Depending on the size and capabilities, iPads range from $329 to $829.

The holiday season is famous for inflating commercialism — and many kids want expensive electronics, gadgets and toys. So how does a parent battle the holiday gimmies?

While many parents feel the pressure to "wow" their children around the holidays, Margret Nickels, director of Erikson Institute Center for Children and Families, said parents with tight budgets — or who are uncomfortable with the commercialism of the holidays — need to be comfortable with changing their idea of what good, caring parenting is.

"Good parenting is not about fulfilling your child's every wish," Nickels said. "It's about trying to do nice things for them to the degree possible."

Nickels suggests parents of younger children with long wish lists explain that Santa has more children to take care of this year as a way to talk about sharing and fewer gifts under the tree.

For older children, she believes honest, open communication is best for explaining a reduced holiday budget.

"Parents can explain that they are taking care of the family and have to be a little more careful with the fun things they spend money on," Nickels said. "They shouldn't say 'We don't have the money,' that's too scary and irrational. Rather, 'I wish I could fulfill your wish but not now, maybe later. Let's focus on something a little more doable for us.'"

Nickels said another strategy parents could employ is to focus on the one bigger gift their child wants rather than buying a handful of smaller gifts for the same price.

"Buy fewer but more meaningful gifts," Nickels said. "Kids get all these gifts, but in the end, it's usually only one or two they end up playing with."

Kenosha, Wis., resident Tina Peterson said Santa requests short wish lists from her kids. Her 8-year-old daughter and twin 5-year-old sons are to make wish lists with four items: one want, one need, one wear, one read.

"I heard about the strategy a long time ago and thought it was excellent," Peterson, 35, said. "If you give too much, expectations are too high. The best thing you can do as a parent is not spoil your kids."

Peterson said her boys' "want" is Legos this year. Her daughter's "need" is new pajamas. This year, the boys will get Star Wars books for their "read."

The family recently came to the city to see the lights along Michigan Avenue and visit Santa at Macy's. But Peterson said she told her kids if they saw anything they wanted, they must add it to their list.

"We're not getting anything here today," Peterson said with a smile at the Disney Store.

Aaron Cooper, a clinical psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, said parents will never be able to curb "the wants," but said when it comes to indulging children, less is more.

"Our research is very strong in demonstrating that the children who receive less materially than other children end up in life with a sense of gratitude more often," Cooper said. "If the gift that parents want to give their children is the gift of lifelong happiness and contentment, gratitude plays an important role in that."

Cooper also said parents need not be afraid of their children's disappointment. The more that kids can practice experiencing this emotion, the easier it becomes for them when life disappoints them down the road, he said.

"We want our children to be resilient in the face of disappointments; we want them to bounce back and know the world isn't coming to an end when they've been disappointed," Cooper said.

But Evanston, Ill., resident Michael Fields said childhood disappointment over holiday gifts can have lifelong effects.

Fields admits he and his wife may have "over-indulged" their two children during the holidays when they were younger, but he doesn't necessarily think that's a bad thing.

Fields, 65, recalled a time when his own father purposely deprived him of a much-desired electric train set. Fields, who is a clinical psychologist, said his father chose to buy him a less exciting, slightly less expensive train set when he could have "easily afforded" the nicer one.

"You don't have to always keep your children hungry and wanting more — it can hurt your relationship," Fields said. "There should be a balance between being chincy and buying gifts within reason. That holiday had a profound impact on my perception as a kid."

If a child really has his or her set on something and the parents can afford it, Fields said he thinks it's appropriate to fulfill the wish.

"I find it preposterous to deprive a child just to make a point," Fields said.

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