6 Tips to Set Your Kids’ Christmas Gift Expectations

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It’s hard to find balance between being a jolly St. Nick and a Scrooge or Grinch. Who wants to be the “no mom” or the “dream killer”? But when your kids become gift-obsessed, what do you do? Here are 6 tips to help children manage their Christmas gift expectations from Santa and others.


Half the fun is anticipation. 

little girl looking at christmas presents under the christmas tree

Seeing all those wrapped boxes, not know what’s inside but trying to find a box the “right size” for items on their wishlist is exciting for kids. Try to find balance between allowing them to dream and keep their feet in reality. Parenting consultant Barbara Coloroso recommends wishing along with them. “I wish I had a magic wand so I could get that for you!” Kids know that if you need a magic wand then it’s out of reach – and you don’t have to be the “no mom”. The magic wand you don’t have can help you set Christmas gift expectations without the “negotiating”.

Ask them why they’re wishing for an item. 

mom and son talking about christmas gift expectations

When your child comes to you with a long list of requests, it’s difficult to help them come to some sort of agreement on which ones to truly expect. If you understand the “why”, it’s easier to suggest an alternative. (And it’s nice to find out that their wishes may not just be about getting more stuff.)

If there’s something definitely on the “no list”, they need to know. 

mom having the christmas present talk

If they are asking for something that you just can’t afford, or for a violent video game that isn’t permitted, let them know that Santa wouldn’t bring something that their parents wouldn’t agree with. Reiterate your family’s beliefs and that your decisions may be different that those of other parents. Reaffirm love as the foundation for your decisions.

The best time to bring it up? When they are talking about it. It doesn’t need to be a “sit down I have something to tell you”. When they talk about this gift they’re wanting, make your response a calm answer, a part of the conversation and then move on to the next thing – like a tickle fight.

Have you heard about the “3 Wishes” way to help kids set Christmas gift expectations?

3 gift rule to help set kids christmas gift expectations based on 3 wiseman at nativity

It was originally based on the idea of the 3 Magi each bringing a gift to the Christ child, but many families are adopting the idea because it makes it easier to create a manageable present list.

They ask their children to narrow down their choice to three categories:

  • something they want
  • something they need
  • something to read

This is a great way to help children manage their Christmas gift expectations, and it teaches them to be practical as well as dream.

Bonus idea: Every year my kids opened one gift on Christmas Eve. Inside was:

  • PJs – or adult onesies* of their favorite movie characters or animals after they got older
  • a board game or phone game that we could all play together. (Our favorite when the kids were high school or older is You Don’t Know Jack which is so funny, makes you think but is “irreverent”. We still play it today!)
  • a book or novel series that they want
  • a fun toiletry item like a fake “shaving kit” for the boys or make up for our daughter

Believe it or not, this was more exciting for them than their Christmas gifts in the morning. When we stopped doing it when they were all adults they were seriously disappointed.

How do you inspire gratitude for socks, underwear or mittens?

boys happy with hand made mittens and socks they received as christmas gifts

It’s every parent’s nightmare that their child will seem ungrateful, or dare we say it – bratty – when they receive a gift that just doesn’t excite them. Your child’s response does hurt people’s feelings, even if they’re just a wee one.

My elderly mother-in-law bought our 4 year old a Mr. Potato Head as a gift. She had asked parents of preschoolers what they recommended when she was in the store and was pretty proud of her gift. When my daughter opened it, somehow she didn’t understand it was a toy. She thought it was a potato that was as hard as rock so she said, “That’s okay grandma. I’ll just throw it in the garbage.” I was appalled. My mother-in-law was waaay past appalled. Even though I explained the situation to both of them and my daughter loved the toy, my mother-in-law never bought a gift herself again. It was always, “tell me what page in the catalogue.”

The way to ensure children are grateful for Christmas presents doesn’t start on December 1st. We need to teach them how to be gracious all year round, every time a teachable moment rears its ugly head. Take the time to talk about their response and explain that we thank people for their kindness, time, and effort as much as for the gift itself. Yes, it’s the old “it’s the thought that matters.”

One way to teach gratitude after the fact is to get children to send thank you cards after Christmas. Ask older children to include something that the honestly appreciate about the gift, even if they have to get a little creative. “Those socks are my favorite color grandma.”

Or, make a family wish list.

simple christmas advent calendar with focus on experiences rather than receiving gifts

Help your children see that the magic of Christmas is about experiences rather getting more “stuff”. As well as their requests for gifts, ask them what traditions they would like to participate in this holiday season. Add your ideas as well – but keep some things a surprise!

To pump up the fun, some events can be written on slips of paper that you put in a santa’s hat and draw one each night. (Make sure you’ve already got the ingredients for cookie baking, hot chocolate night or movie night, etc. before you make the draw.) It can also be fun to make the draw in the morning so the children can anticipate their event all day.

Or take the surprise out of it for you, and create a simple advent calendar countdown with envelopes on a string for as many days as you wish: the whole month of December, or the 12 days of Christmas. If the focus is on experiences and doing things together rather than getting little gifts or chocolates from a card, this reinforces that the magic of Christmas is togetherness. (You know we believe that good times are the glue or great relationships.)

christmas good times glue quote

I hope these tips inspire ideas to help your children manage their Christmas gift expectations so everyone has happy holidays.

Kumiko at The Budget Mom has some really awesome ideas to help you set your kid’s Christmas gift expectations all year round, not just during the Holidays. Our favorite idea: keep an eye out for “lifestyle creep” and having to “one-up” last year.

Green Child Magazine has some practical ideas to implement when your kids have the “gimme-gimmes”. Our favorite: help your child learn how to make choices, prioritize and deal with disappointment all year long.

Dan Peters, PhD, at Psychology Today focuses on the child’s mindset, especially when it comes to Christmas advertising for toys or electronics. Favorite idea: keep on top of the marketing aimed at your child and teach them to be grateful what they already have.

Diane Dempster, CPC, PCC, at Impact Parents writes about using the “Coach Approach” to parenting children with ADHD but her tips and ideas can apply to all children who get hyper-focused on gifts during the holiday season. Favorite idea: kids don’t understand the price of an iPhone or what is involved in getting a puppy. The “magic of Christmas” that they see all around them – on their street, in the mall, in their own home – makes them think they should get what they want. She recommends not skipping ahead to solving the problem. Use compassion. Tell them you love the magic of Christmas too and it’s hard for you to keep your excitement in check sometimes. After you validate their feelings and let them know you completely understand how they feel, you can have a serious talk about expectations.

Talk with Our Kids About Money stresses the importance of talking to kids ahead of time so they aren’t disappointed Christmas morning. Our favorite idea: one of the exciting things is having lots of presents to open, so buy lots of lower-cost items that they’ll love. They recommend using Christmas season as a teachable moment to talk about money. Help them be aware of how you need to budget for Christmas dinner or Christmas parties or outings.

We learned about the three gift rule from Rachel Bowie at Pure Wow. She asks, “Would you really follow it?” That’s what we want to know, too! Tell us in the comments what you think.

Want more ideas for a merry countdown to Christmas?

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