Managing Children’s Expectations: A Key To Happy Holidays

Christmas can bring all sorts of problems for parents when children are expecting more than they will receive. This handy guide can help!

Ten-year-old Sara keeps her holiday wish list in a notebook, adding new items as she watches Saturday morning cartoons. The list is six pages long by October, including several items costing $100 or more.

Devon, who just turned 5, scans the Sunday paper, boldly marking the ads for toys he’s expecting from Santa and leaving them where they are sure to get noticed by family members. His mum and dad brace themselves for a month or more of tearful pleading and high-volume demands.

“I want it!” “Everyone else has one!” “Buy it for me.” “Why can’t I have it?” No wonder parents of children like Sara and Devon dread the holidays — not to mention birthdays and other special occasions that provoke similar outbursts.

Gimme, Gimme, Gimme!

Every child making a holiday list doesn’t have deep-seated psychological problems. But many parents and child development professionals are concerned that even very young children are adversely influenced by a steady diet of commercials and buying appeals that can raise their holiday expectations to an unhealthy level.

“We live in a culture that encourages children to get all they can,” said Lynne Namka, Ed.D., a psychologist in private practice in Tucson, Ariz. “It happens year-round, but is especially noticeable during the holidays. Children are constantly bombarded with the message that they can have everything they want.”

Some children are encouraged to demand gifts their families can’t afford, while others want items of which their parents do not approve, Namka says.

“In many cases, children’s expectations are so extensive or so unrealistic their parents can’t avoid disappointing them, no matter how much they spend or how many toys they buy,” she added.

The Santa Problem

Shirley Ogletree, Ph.D., professor of developmental psychology at Texas State University in San Marcos concurs, pointing out that some holiday traditions may even make the situation worse.

“In homes where Santa Claus is the focus, it can be hard for parents to explain why the children can’t have everything they want,” Ogletree said. “The magic and mystery of the season becomes associated with receiving toys and gifts, and detached from giving to and sharing with others.”

When children begin to ask practical questions about Santa — such as how he can fit through a chimney or how his reindeer can fly — they are mentally mature enough to start developing more realistic holiday expectations, Ogletree says.

“And it’s also a good time to increase the emphasis on giving, sharing and personal relationships as the most enjoyable aspects of the season,” she added.

Parents need to discuss holiday expectations with their children well in advance, Namka says.

“As soon as the seasonal hype starts, talk to them about what they can expect to receive,” Namka said. “Be specific about what gifts you feel are appropriate for them and approximately how much you can afford to spend. And above all, remind them that it’s fine to ask for what you want, but that no one gets everything they ask for.”

No Surprises

Ann E. LaForge, New York-based author of “Tantrums: Secrets to Calming the Storm” and “What Really Happens in Schools” as well as a mother of two school-aged children, also believes that children fare best when the holidays are predictable.

“Adults enjoy surprises,” she said, “but children generally prefer to know what’s going to happen. They are fine if they know they are going to get one or two of the things they really want, but are bound to be disappointed if they find out at the very last minute that they haven’t.”

LaForge recommends creating a family “wish list” for desired items that, for one reason or another, won’t be available on the day presents are exchanged.

“For example, we already know that we can’t get the popular PlayStation 2 in time for this holiday season because they are in such demand,” she explained. “But we will keep it on our list and get one for the next special holiday, like Valentine’s Day in February.”

Dealing with Disappointment

Holiday disappointment can have an upside, too. Even the disappointment children experience when every holiday wish isn’t granted can have a positive impact on their character in the long term, according to Namka.

“Kids actually need many little trials and tribulations, failures and disappointments to mature emotionally,” she said. “Learning to deal with these feelings increases their social competence and resilience. When parents try to spare them by buying everything as soon as they ask for it, kids never develop the ability to handle setbacks. Trying to insulate children from every small disappointment is a mistake.”

Not ‘What’ Present But ‘Why’

Julie Creighton, director of the Duracell Kid’s Choice Toy Survey, is an expert on children’s holiday expectations. And in years when the hottest toys are in short supply, she’s an expert on kids’ disappointment, too.

“Parents should be less concerned with what their child wants for a gift and more concerned with why they want it,” Creighton said. “If you ask children what they want, they give you the marketing information they’ve been fed by the media. But if you ask them why they want it, you’ll learn what meaning the toy has in their lives.”

In selecting children’s gifts, Creighton explains that play value is important. Play value refers to how children use the toy or game to meet their developmental needs.

“When you know why a child wants a particular toy, it’s often possible to find a more affordable or acceptable alternative with the same play value,” she added. “When the child’s purpose of wanting a gift is met, any disappointment fades quickly. By New Year’s Day, it’s a favorite toy.”

Tips for parents

Creighton and LaForge have other tips for parents with concerns about managing their children’s holiday expectations. Creighton recommends the following.

  • Communicate your economic limitations:Be honest about your family’s economic circumstances with children. Decide how much you can spend on each child’s gifts. Give the child that amount in play money to “shop” in a toy catalogue. This can help the child understand how difficult it is to make choices, as well as how far a certain amount of money goes in meeting expectations.
  • Encourage the child to prioritise:If a child’s wish list is lengthy, ask for an indication of the one or two top choices. This is a good time to discuss why each toy is on the child’s list and gain an understanding of each one’s play value from the child’s perspective.
  • Research alternatives for requested items:Children often request certain items by brand name because they are more highly advertised, but often identical or similar items are available and will meet the same needs. The child may experience momentary disappointment that the gift is not exactly what was requested, but if it’s an item that has a similar play value, the disappointment will be fleeting.
  • Take advantage of the teachable moment disappointment offers:If you can’t find or afford a requested toy and your child expresses disappointment, use the opportunity to teach a life lesson. Share a time in your own life when you wanted something, but didn’t get it. Describe how you dealt with the situation and reassure them they will recover from their loss, as you have.

LaForge adds:

  • Promote problem solving:Problem-solving skills are important to the development of resilience in children. When children find out they aren’t going to receive something they want, encourage them to think about another gift that will make them happy or a later celebration for which they might request the same gift.
  • Emphasize honest gratitude:Even when children are disappointed in a gift, it’s important for them to learn how to be gracious recipients. Expressing gratitude so others’ feelings don’t get hurt is an element of social competence that can be refined even during this emotionally charged season.
  • Highlight the rewards of giving:Nothing lifts a child’s disappointment more quickly than being able to give a heartfelt gift to someone else. Shifting the emphasis from receiving to giving helps children see the exchange of presents from a new and different perspective.

Reprinted from Words by Holly VanScoy, Ph.D