My Dad loved Christmas. Most of our home videos are full of the gifts my sister and I opened throughout the years. As we became adults and grandchildren entered the picture, Christmas seemed to get even bigger. At one point I remember there being so many gifts to open that my nieces and nephews actually—if you can believe it—grew tired of opening them.
Each year I asked, “Dad, why do you buy so much?” And each year his response was the same: “Because I enjoy it.”
Dad entered eternity with Jesus earlier this month after a long battle with congestive heart failure. He was just 58 years old.
If I had written this prior to his death, I may have been more judgmental of lavish gift-giving. For some, like my Dad, it’s a love language. To ask parents whose love language is giving gifts to give less would be like asking me to quit spending time taking my kids on adventures (my love language).
On the other hand, with Black Friday and Cyber Monday fast approaching, it’s safe to say that for many families gift-giving is out of control. What do I mean by “out of control”?
The irony of my Dad’s excessive gift-giving is that my memories are not of anything I received but the things we did. Playing football in the backyard after opening presents; pulling pranks on each other (like secretly taping wrapping paper to each others’ back ends); or simply playing games together around the table. To my recollection—though I’m sure I had my bratty moments—I never felt entitled to the gifts I received.
In his book The Entitlement Cure, my friend John Townsend defines entitlement as two beliefs: (1) I am exempt from responsibility; and (2) I am owed special treatment.
Families who are out of control at Christmas are families who—often without even realizing it—cater to or validate these two beliefs. In other words, if we’re not careful, our gift-giving may be less about how we give and more about the values we’re instilling in our children.
Here are three gift-giving traps we can fall into at Christmas—and three appropriate ways we can give to instill values of gratitude and responsibility.
1. Out of control: We buy our kids everything they ask for—regardless of their behavior, or our budget—because we fear disappointing them or making them angry.
Appropriate way: Objectively, stick to a budget. Subjectively, give your kids the gift of surprise, awe, and wonder.
When we buy our kids everything they want, we lose the thrill of surprising them. We also fuel their sense of deserving special treatment. When we buy gifts out of fear of our child’s reaction, we have a deeper problem than gift-giving.
When she was growing up, my wife Christi received 3 to 5 gifts each Christmas. My in-laws stuck to a budget for each child, gave them one really special gift, a stocking, and a few smaller items like clothes and books. Christi said it gave her a sense of gratitude for what she received.
To help your kids understand both the thrill of surprise and sticking to a budget, give them the responsibility to buy something for someone in your family, like a sibling. Ask them to budget their own money so they understand how much things cost. Help them buy a gift that will really surprise the recipient. There’s something special about spending your own money to truly bless another person.
2. Out of control: We buy gifts inappropriate for our kid’s age. (Think buying video games rated “M” [for mature] for your 12-year-old.)
Appropriate way: Talk to your kids about the gifts on their wish list and why they want them. If it’s inappropriate for their age, (i.e. iPhone 7 Plus for a 10-year-old), talk to them about it. Use Christmas gift-giving to teach values of responsibility.
I have had many parents call me lamenting that they found pornography on their kids’ iPad or computer—yet they never set limits on them. Do your homework on what you’re buying for your kids. And remember, the gifts we buy should be from our volition, not from the fear of our kids’ reactions if they don’t get what they want.
If we’re walking on eggshells around our children, consider that the best gift we might give this year is disappointment. He or she doesn’t “deserve” everything.
3. Out of control: We prioritize gifts as the focal point of Christmas. We give our kids their gifts and don’t see them again because they retreat to their rooms.
Appropriate way: Prioritize family time, giving to others, and celebrating Jesus’ birth.
Have your kids give away toys to local kids in need. Sing carols at a nursing home. Take your kids to a widow’s home in your neighborhood and ask to help her decorate for Christmas. Start family traditions. Bake cookies together. Play more board games. Throw Jesus a birthday party.
I don’t want my children growing up not seeing their need for Jesus because I pampered them too much. Christmas is not about our kids; it’s about Jesus. There is no greater gift to give our kids than introducing them to Him.
Joshua Straub, Ph.D. serves as Marriage and Family Strategist for LifeWay Christian Resources and is the President and Cofounder of The Connextion Group, a company designed to empower families to live, love, and lead well. He is author/coauthor of four books including Safe House: How Emotional Safety is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well. Josh and his wife, Christi, reside in Nashville with their son, Landon, and daughter, Kennedy. You can watch Dr. Josh + Christi live each week on Facebook Live talking about marriage and parenting in the 21st century.