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How to set realistic expectations for your child's Christmas wish list

December 05, 2014

This post was original published in December 2012.

My family celebrates Christmas. Recently, my son wrote his Christmas list. I guess it’s a sign of the times, but most of the items he is requesting this year are technological in nature and are at least $50.00. Here’s the kicker: He’s only seven. I figured I’d have a few more years before the list started to contain gadgets like laptops and ipods, but it looks like I was wrong. I read through the list and my initial reaction was, “Are you kidding me?!  No way!”

Here’s the tricky part. He’s a wonderful child. He listens, works hard at school, and is kind to everyone he meets. If anyone was deserving of having his Christmas wishes come true, it would be my son (I’m not biased at all, am I?!). He’s also our only child. Our Christmas budget pretty much revolves around him. Also, at seven, he doesn’t fully get the financial aspect of gift buying. He knows that some items cost more, but still, he just wants what he wants. So, when do we say “Enough is enough?" How do we draw the line with appropriate gift buying for our kid, and avoid going into debt at the same time?

Part of me wants to get him everything he wants; everything that we can afford to buy him. I love watching him open his presents on Christmas morning. It’s fun. He’s only a kid once, after all.

However, the possibility of spoiling him has never been far from my mind. With no brothers or sisters to share the limelight or the cost with, life at home is pretty much all about him. We are not trying to raise a bratty child who demands (and then gets) everything in sight.

So, what we decided to do with this crazy wish list was to limit and substitute. Our son was reminded that no one gets everything they ask for. He was told, pretty much immediately, that the ipod was not going to happen. We did not feel that he was ready for such a gift.  The risk of damage or loss was just too great. This is the same kid that can’t remember where he put his pencil. How would he remember where he put his ipod?! “Maybe in a few years, and maybe you can contribute some of your savings towards it," we explained. Was he disappointed? Yes. Did we feel bad? No. My husband and I felt strongly that giving a seven-year-old an ipod was not necessary.

My son was also requesting his very own laptop - a real, true, internet accessing laptop. Why not? “Everyone else” has laptops; why shouldn’t he? Well, to us, this also was an easy one. No way. There was no chance that we were going to give him his own computer with internet access. The cost and safety concerns are simply too great. Instead, we found a kids’ learning laptop with decent graphics and games geared towards his age. Was it grown up enough? Probably not. Was it cool enough? Doubtful. Did I feel bad about the possibility of him being disappointed? Not at all. My convictions were that he was not ready for such a gift, and felt that we, as parents, could explain our feelings on that, if he asked.

Now that we had taken away and subbed out his top two choices, now what? Fortunately, some of the other items were a little more do-able. On the list was a new bike, which was legitimately needed. Okay, we could go for that. Some matchbox cars? Books? A new board game? No problem. 

We also found a couple of things that we thought he would like that he hadn’t even seen or asked for. We found some cool camping gear and some new cds and movies. At that point, we were pretty much done. We might have ended up with a longer list than some of you out there with bigger families. With one child, we have a little more to spend, but we also took care to try not to go overboard.

We also started putting away a little cash ahead of time and vowed not to use credit cards. If we could not cover the cost with cash, then we weren’t buying it. As I run down the list of presents that our little boy will find under the tree this year, I know that it’s not all exactly what he was looking for, but I’m sure that he will still be excited about what he receives.

We will also continue to try to teach the message that, while everyone loves presents, Christmas is not about the amount of packages under the tree. We will find ways on Christmas Day to talk about how fortunate we are to have each other and our family and friends, and that in the big picture, that’s what really matters, not the toys and gadgets. At seven years old, he may not really buy that yet, but my hope is, as the years pass, he will come to see that that is really what Christmas is all about. Until that happens, we will keep limiting and substituting!

As a parent, how do you handle the “I wants” and gift requests that holidays (and birthdays) bring?