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how to have a less material holiday

Help Kids Enjoy a Less Material Holiday Season

fewer unused toys, more generosity

December can be a very material month with the many holidays. In fact, December is all about presents at my house. My son’s seventh birthday is this month, followed a couple of short weeks later by Christmas. I started stockpiling presents before you probably thought about your kid’s Halloween costume.

My child doesn’t really need more toys and games, of course; we have plenty of items he played with once or twice and lost interest in. So it would be nice if the accumulation of stuff wasn’t so important.

What if our kids didn’t count presents but instead counted their blessings? Loved ones, togetherness, kindness—those are the things that really matter at the holidays, right?

I think all of us parents would agree that’s true. But if we’re fortunate enough to be able to gift our children with more than the basics, it’s not always easy to pull kids’ focus away from the material world.

I chatted with fellow parents and some experts on young minds to see what we can do to give our children the gift of a more meaningful holiday season.

Going less material and ending excessive gift giving

A North Texas mom named Dorothy has an unusual approach to the holidays. (We omitted Dorothy’s last name for privacy—because, as you’ll see, her philosophy isn’t one every parent agrees with.) Dorothy’s kids know Santa isn’t real. No, they didn’t have a sudden, shocking revelation. They’ve basically always known the truth.

“It’s about removing some of the distractions during the Christmas season, so we can focus on what really matters,” she explains. “My husband’s parents didn’t do Santa, and even when I was a teenager I thought I might not do Santa with my future kids. Early on in my relationship with my husband, we watched his niece tear through countless presents, constantly asking, ‘Where’s my nother one?’ We just wanted our kids to have a different kind of Christmas, one built on quality and not quantity while remembering that not all kids are as fortunate as others.”

Their children (a daughter, 6, and a son, 3) do have Santa PJs, and St. Nick shows up as a character in some of their storybooks. But he’s just that—a character, no different than Elsa in Frozen. Presents come from Mom, Dad and other family and friends, without an extra haul from the “North Pole.”

“This allows us to keep Jesus Christ as the center of the season, and promotes a deeper level of trust within the family by the kids knowing what’s behind the curtain,” Dorothy shares. “Of course, we have conversations with our kids to respect other families’ Santa plans to avoid running their experience.”

Dorothy and her husband also try to not let their kids get an excess of toys that they won’t really play with.

“When my daughter was a couple of years old, I realized she was accumulating so many things and not even really enjoying them all,” Dorothy recalls. “We didn’t want people to waste money on toys that would sit untouched.”

Now they split the children’s gifts in two ways: If it’s a toy the kids would actually like and frequently use, Mom, Dad or another family member will buy it; otherwise, the children receive “experience gifts”—tickets to Sesame Street Live, a gift certificate to an art studio or a trampoline park, zoo tickets.

This year, since her kids are forgoing most outings because of COVID, Dorothy is buying activity presents, such as a birdhouse the kids can spend hours putting together and painting.

“We also space out the gifts,” Dorothy adds. “Our family opens stockings on Christmas Eve before other presents in the morning. It’s the same idea for birthdays. They open presents each day of their birthday week. They open one and spend that day playing with it and enjoying it. They’re not tearing wildly tearing through wrapping paper in a frenzy of gifts-gifts-gifts, without having an appreciation for what they received as well as who gave it to them.”

Does that sound too good to be true? A less material holiday season can happen, says Audrey Kteily, Ph.D., a parenting expert with Coppell Family Therapy. “It starts with how you set the tone for the season. The holidays are a time for togetherness, warmth, kindness and giving. Often, the focus is on the wrong things.”

That’s why experience gifts are a good option. “It really isn’t all about the stuff,” Kteily emphasizes. “Material items will not last, but experiences and family memories will.”

Dorothy says the fact that they started experiential gift giving when her kids were very young definitely helped. “I think if we had waited, it would have been near impossible to get them to not focus on the next toy to open.”

Preparing kids for a less material celebration

If you are hoping to make a change to your holiday celebrations—and help your kids have a less greedy, more grateful approach to the season—this may be a good year to do it.

“I think that this year brought so many changes already that families can take advantage of that and change the way they celebrate the holidays as well,” shares Paula Brañez, a kids life coach with allUneedisU Kids Life Studio in McKinney. “Our children have shown us that they are more flexible and resilient than we think.”

I saw something online that said if you need to cut back on presents this year, tell your kids that Santa didn’t survive the pandemic. Obviously (hopefully it’s obvious) that’s a joke. Brañez recommends honesty if you need to prepare your child for a significant change.

“By having an open conversation and speaking from the heart, parents can set up their children to be open for a change,” she says. “The kids will receive the message in the way the parents deliver it. If parents feel guilty that they can’t give the kids as much, the kids will receive the message with a negative connotation.”

Even if it’s not a matter of need driving a decreased gift haul, but simply a desire to embrace a more meaningful approach to the holiday, don’t underestimate kids’ ability to understand. “Parents can explain the reasoning behind the positive change they want to do,” Brañez suggests. “They can explain to children that this year showed us that material things are not a priority—most of the families survived with just the basics.”

Whatever your motivation for scaling back on all the things, there’s good news: Research indicates that giving your children fewer toys is actually good for them.

A recent study out of the University of Toledo showed that an excess of toys lowers the quality of toddlers’ play, a critical component in development. A University of Missouri study suggests that parents who give their kids all the toys and gadgets they put on their wish lists may be setting them to become materialistic adults.

Refocus the holiday by thinking of others

To help your children get on board with a holiday that’s not so self-centered (and inspires both giving and gratitude) you have to take charge, mama. “When I was a child, my family showed me what it was like to give back, and it inspired me to do the same thing,” says Shauna Carranza, a Carrollton mom of three. “I always enjoyed the feeling of making someone else happy. I started young and it stuck with me.”

With Isabella, 10, Thiago, 6, and Andre, 7 months, Carranza takes the same approach her parents and grandparents did—visibly serving and giving back, especially during the holidays.

The Carranzas typically “adopt” a family in need for Christmas; after their youngest was born at 22 weeks and spent 154 days in the NICU, they are raising money to buy mamaRoo chairs for preemies in the unit. “We want to show our gratitude for all the hard work the Plano Presbyterian staff put in and all the love they give to make sure these sick babies thrive and make it home to their families,” she explains.

For Carranza, it’s all about leading by example. “My children see all the good things we do for people and hopefully one day they will too,” she says. “My youngest is still a baby, but we always tell my middle son how important it is to be kind. My daughter has a huge heart. She helps me with anything she can and always thinks of others.”

In addition to modeling generosity for your children, you can ask them how they want to contribute and give back. Kteily suggests sharing with your child something like, “This season, many people won’t have a fine dinner on the table or presents for their children. How can we help them?”

You can also foster giving within your own family. Jessica Schmulen Williams, a Colleyville mom featured in our story about holiday traditions (see “Happier Holidays,” page 11), told us about something she and her husband do each year with their children. “When we put up the tree, we set up three boxes that we call ‘sibling boxes,’” she says.

“In December, we take each child shopping so they can use their allowance money to buy presents for their siblings. They wrap the presents and leave them in the boxes. It empowers them to be generous. They like to see each other happy. It’s really one of their very favorite things about the holidays.”

And it’s important to keep the focus on others going, even after the tree comes down and kids are back in school. Kteily notes, “Encouraging these ideas all year long will help shape the focus for the next holiday.”


Holiday Troubleshooting

Here are additional suggestions from our experts for a less material holiday:

Want to quit buying so many things the kids won’t really care about five minutes after opening them? “Give your kids a structured template for their holiday wish list,” suggests Audrey Kteily, a counselor with Coppell Family Therapy. “Ask them to list, say, one tech item, three toys, two experiences and one way they want to help others.”

When you can’t afford a bigger gift haul, be especially thoughtful about what you do give. “Parents can buy one thing the child wants, and then buy something for the family so they can play together and have fun.

That will change the environment and add joy to the day,” says Paula Brañez, a kids life coach in McKinney.

Here’s an easy, meaningful gift that’s not another thing: “Parents can write notes for the stockings, a short memory about each child that left a beautiful trace in their heart,” recommends Brañez.


Safer Celebrations

Being with extended family and dear friends is one of the most meaningful parts of the holiday season. Many people are altering their plans in light of COVID—but if you are heading to Grandma’s house or hosting a gathering, there are precautions you can take to lower your risk.

Here are some recommendations from Dr. Miguel Benet, division chief medical officer for Medical City Healthcare:

  • Travel: “Some types of travel pose less risk than others, including driving in your own car with immediate family members,” notes Benet. “Traveling by air can bring you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces, since it requires time spent in security lines and airport terminals.”

When it comes to the risks during an actual flight, Benet points to a recent report by the Journal of the American Medical Association. “It shows that because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes, the risk of contracting COVID-19 during air travel is low,” shares Benet. “However, passengers may have to sit close together, sometimes for hours, making social distancing difficult.”

The report says steps passengers can take to increase their safety include wearing a mask, limiting carry-on baggage and adjusting the overhead air nozzle to point straight at their head on the highest level of air flow.

Stay seated when possible, and wash or sanitize your hands often (and keep your hands out of your face).

One more thing: The report notes that the risk of getting COVID-19 during air travel is lower than the risk from an office building, classroom, grocery store or commuter train.

  • Gatherings: Benet emphasizes that the safest gatherings involve those who already live in your house. “For [gatherings with] other family members who may have been socially distanced at home for 10–14 days or tested negative for COVID-19 just prior to the gathering, be creative when arranging tables, chairs or other furniture so it is easier to stay six feet apart,” Benet advises. “Invite people to serve themselves using their own, unused utensils.”

If you’re looking to keep kiddos busy during those gatherings, Benet recommends activities that allow for distancing, such as Frisbee, catch or sidewalk chalk. (Let’s cross our fingers that it won’t be too cold out!)

Image courtesy of iStock.