When You Can’t Give Your Kids Everything on Their List

The holidays. Who doesn’t love this time of year? It really is the most wonderful, full of family, love, beautiful decorations, yummy food and the joy of giving. The joy of giving has its limits, though. Enter, THE LIST. A source of joy, fear and guilt for parents.

Back when my brother and I were kids, we would wait impatiently for the Sears catalog to arrive. We spent hours scanning each page and circling the coveted items – an Evil Knievel action figure for him, an Easy Bake Oven for me. Even though we knew all along that Santa probably wouldn’t bring us everything on our lists, we still had some pretty unreasonable expectations. I spent half my childhood asking for a horse. I was undeterred by the fact that we lived in a nice little neighborhood, on a quarter-acre lot. Every year on Christmas morning, I would race to my bedroom window and pull the curtain, sure that my Palomino would be there. It’s Santa, right? He’s magical. And I had been really good. Ok, sort of good. In the end, I never got that horse. Fantasies like mine were kept to a minimum though, because back then we didn’t have the internet …

… And Shipping Is Free!

The internet has been a game changer, to say the least. If you can imagine it, you can search for it. And our kids are smart little creatures with brilliant imaginations, and their fingers are nimble on a keyboard. This has expanded the expectations of kids considerably. Up until the ages of 7 and 4, my children had the benefit of a dual-income home. Christmas was over the top. There is actual video footage of my son, then 6 years old, moving from item to item and clearly taking inventory. Finally, he turns to me and says, “Where’s my Spiderman shirt? I asked Santa for a Spiderman shirt.” My daughter, still 3, was happily playing with an empty box while surrounded by a rather impressive haul that she couldn’t have cared less about. My first Christmas as a single parent, I thought of my son and fear struck my heart. How was I going to explain the significant decrease in Santa’s generosity? As difficult as it might be, it was time to get real … or sort of real.

Santa: The Man, the Myth, the Legend

One of the great things about Santa is that he’s a mystery. We, as parents, have the luxury of going through the legends, and using what we like and abandoning what we don’t. I never cared for the if-you’re-good-Santa-will-bring-you-lots-of-toys strategy to curtail bad behavior. For starters, my children were surrounded by cousins and friends whose Christmas mornings were a bonanza. I never wanted them to question their own worth and “goodness” based on what a relative or friend had gotten. That, and kids go to school and talk about what Santa left under their tree. The last thing I wanted was for Mr. Inventory to go to school, list his haul and unknowingly make a friend feel like he wasn’t “good” enough.

So, from the time my children were young, I explained to them that Santa had a major operation he was running at the North Pole. I reminded them that those little elves had families of their own to care for, and that the reindeer had to have a stable to live in and hay to eat. “How does he pay for that?” they asked, wide-eyed. They were satisfied to learn that moms and dads pitch in by sending money to Santa. It helped them understand why some kids end up with more than others, as well as why their Christmases were going to be different with a single mom. I’ve had a lot of parenting fails in my life, but I count that moment as a success.

That wish list is still daunting though, isn’t it?

Here are a few tips for making it more manageable.

  • Has someone requested a big-ticket item? Ask yourself if it’s something two of them could share. Last year, both of my teenagers wanted laptops. They were more than willing to share if it meant the laptop would be there Christmas morning.
  • Have a kid who wants a horse like I did? Surprise them with a package of lessons instead of an actual horse. Wannabe musician? Rent an instrument instead of buying it and take advantage of free internet tutorials.
  • One of my kids’ favorite gifts are my coupon books. I fill them with special privileges. They might get a ticket that gives them a day of doing something they love, permission to have a slumber party, the dinner menu of their choice or a chore-free week, and I even give out “get out of restriction free” coupons.
  • Ask your kids to prioritize a few gifts that are really important to them. Do your best to provide one or two of those items, and then use your creativity. Write a story with them as the central character, paint a picture that will strike a chord with them or create a new recipe that includes their favorite flavors.
  • Are the kids begging for a pet, but you’re just not sure they’re ready for the responsibility? Talk to a local rescue about serving as a foster home. You’ll be setting a great example of how to make a positive impact in your community! And if you fall in love, you can always make the arrangement permanent.

What It’s All Really About

As much as we treasure watching our kid’s faces light up when they open the perfect gift, ultimately we want to raise children who know that the spirit of the season is not rooted in receiving, but in giving. Last year, a family in my community took in seven siblings to prevent them from being separated in foster care. It was one of the greatest examples of compassion and love I have ever seen. Determined to make sure they had a magical holiday, I began a campaign to provide them with everything from a Christmas meal, to decorations, to gifts under the tree. I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love for these kids and the selflessness of others. I thought my heart was going to burst when my teenagers – even the inventory taker – offered to give up their gifts to make sure these seven children had the Christmas they deserved. I knew then that their pared down wish lists, and my “creative” gift giving, hadn’t hurt them at all. In fact, it may have been the very thing that planted that seed of compassion.

So don’t feel the least bit guilty about not being able to give your kid everything on their list. In the end, the best gift they – or anyone – can receive, is love. And love doesn’t cost a thing.

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