Q.  I always dread gift opening time at my house, because the kids count gifts and tally value in their heads. They often accuse me of favoring one over another. Should I be counting boxes or making sure my receipts add up to the same amount?

A. You’re not alone in trying to sort out gift giving dilemmas. In researching this subject, I found much disagreement. But don’t stress too much: in my own practice over the years, I’ve not met any clients who entered therapy because they got less at Christmas compared to a sibling. It may happen, but I suspect it’s rare.

Betsy Brown Braun, author of You’re Not the Boss of Me: Brat-proofing Your Four- to Twelve-Year-Old Child, points out that parents spend a lot of time teaching kids that fair means equal, but they are setting up expectations for equality in other areas of their kids’ lives, and it just isn’t always going to be so.

In talking with mothers, I found many different ideas and solutions around gift giving. Here are some of their great suggestions:

  1. If one child’s gifts will cost more than the others’, have a talk with everyone in advance to let them know it’s happening and that over time the spending will even out.
  2. If one child wants or needs something that’s over the gift budget, have the child earn some of the money for the gift.
  3. If you decide to keep the gifts equal in number, do as one Austin Family staffer does and give each child a symbolic number of gifts (such as three gifts to match the number carried by the three wise men). Or do as another staffer does and give presents in categories (such as one want, one need, one thing to wear and one read).
  4. Make the gift opening fun to take the focus off number and value. You could create a treasure hunt or put a small gift in a box, then in a bigger box and increasingly bigger boxes.
  5. Have the children make or buy presents for each other, someone in a nursing home or an elderly neighbor. This lets them experience the joy of giving and learn how challenging it is to find the “right” present for someone.
  6. Instead of giving material gifts, choose to spend Christmas money on a shared family experience or trip. Encourage the kids to research destinations, keep a diary of the trip and create a scrapbook afterward.
  7. Consider joining a micro lending group like KIVA, in which you place money in accounts to lend out to strangers around the world to build community resources or start a small business. This gift lasts a long time; as the loans are repaid, the money is relent to help more people. Many of us here in Austin have small needs and large wants, whereas others in our world have great needs.
  8. Talk with your children about appreciation and gratitude. When they receive gifts, help them write and send thank-you notes. Writing thank-you notes helps children develop thoughtfulness in regard to others.
  9. Stay focused on your reason for the holiday season in keeping with your own religion and beliefs.

Perhaps you can take these solutions, add your own personal twist and come up with different ideas to make your holidays less crazy and more enjoyable for your family and yourself.

Betty Richardson, Ph.D., R.N.C., L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.

Got a question for Betty Richardson? Email us here and you just might see the answer in an upcoming issue!

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