Christmas presents! Even parents who like to keep Christmas simple have to put some thought into shopping.
Some families buy presents according to a theme, such as “something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.” If this works for your family, great! It will help keep the flood of toys at bay, and will make it easier to achieve gift parity between kids.
We choose gifts on a kid-by-kid basis, with no formula. Our kids each get three presents and a stocking stuffer, and we aim for things that will make them happy right away, and at least one thing that will last them a while, even if it doesn’t cause instant thrills. I used to make one handmade present per kid per year, but, as the philosopher said, I only got two hands.
Here’s what we try to avoid:
The “My Kid’s a Genius, So We’ll Just Ignore the Manufacturer’s Suggested Age” toy. A rookie parent mistake that we figured out the hard way. The manufacturers have hired experts to help them sell as much of their product as possible, so you know they’re highly motivated to get it right (and consumer reviews give you even more information). If your kid is above average (and whose kid isn’t?), let him play with age-appropriate toys in an above-average manner. He just won’t have very much fun with toys that are too old for him.
The exception: Books. Good readers are good readers, and it’s great to challenge them. But be aware that reading level has to do with content and tone, not just vocabulary!
And of course, some kids really are especially gifted, and can do things that their peers can’t manage. If you are going to shop above their age level, base it on behaviors that you’ve already seen in your kid, not on a broad idea that your kid is advanced in general.
The thing I would have loved when I was that age. Well-intentioned, but . . . dun-dun-dunnnnnn . . . my kids are not me. I need to make sure I’m considering nothing but their tastes and their desires and their interests when shopping for them, and not subconsciously trying to appease some disappointed ghost of my own childhood. We consult with siblings if we’re not sure about gift ideas — they often have a much clearer idea of what would be well-received.
The exception: Sometimes your kids really are like you. This makes everything easy! Congratulations.
The thing I’m hoping will make up for all the gaps in their cultural education that I’m noticing and fretting over now that it’s the end of the year and night cometh. Okay, so I wish I had taken them to more art museums this year. I wish I had yanked out their earbuds and made them enjoy Schubert lieder while we carpool. I wish I had spent the evenings reciting poetry instead of holed up on Facebook pretending I don’t hear them roller skating on the stairs. But I didn’t, and Christmas morning is supposed to be pleasant, not corrective.
The exception: It’s fine to up the ante in a field the kids already enjoy. You’re really into drawing Manga? Here’s a collection of weird Hokusai art. You like decorating cakes? Here’s a starter fondant set. And so on.
The 45-degrees-off present. If they told me about something specific, it’s because they want that specific thing. We don’t have to get it, of course. We remind our kids repeatedly that wish lists are to help us get ideas, and they are not order forms, and that surprises are fun. But in most cases, if we can’t or won’t get exactly what they asked for, we get something else entirely, not something that sort of resembles what they asked for. That “almost, but not quite” space is really uncomfortable for kids.
The exception: If you’ve done your research and read the reviews and truly think you’ve found a better version than what they want, then trust yourself as an adult consumer. This works best with older kids.
The present that’s so nice, we already bought it eleven times. I was going to calculate how many presents we’ve bought over the last eighteen years, but let’s just say that the labor abuses in China are basically all our fault. Baby sea lions who die because there is too much bubble wrap in the world? That’s on us. I’ll claim global warming, too — that’s how many tea sets our eight daughters have worked their way through. The upshot is that I often find a gift that looks completely perfect, just so right, and don’t realize why it looks so right until, on December 7 of 2015, Amazon helpfully informs me, “You last bought this present on December 7 of 2014.” And then I remember that on Dec. 7 of 2014, it told me the same thing, except it said “2013.”
The exception: Yesterday, my four-year-old had an Elsa/Spiderman birthday party. Today, Facebook showed me “memories from last year,” including photos of my three-year-old’s Elsa/Spiderman birthday party. She got a bigger sparkly dress and a replacement coloring book with more glow-in-the-dark tattoos, because that’s what her little heart desired. Two years in a row.
The thing that makes me slightly ill to buy. Listen to your instincts. You know your kid, and you know what you’re trying to achieve in your family. If the kid wants something desperately, but you know it’s going to end in tears, listen to your instincts. If your kid is yearning for some item, but it just feels contrary to the spirit of Christmas, listen to your instincts. You’re the parent. Listen to your instincts.
The exception: Nah, there is no exception. You’re in charge. Be kind and understanding, but remember that kids need to learn that they’re not going to get everything they want. It’s okay to talk to them about it, if you decided not to get a certain thing.
But! All this talk about presents, and shopping, and buying . . . isn’t it kind of materialistic? Isn’t Jesus the reason for the season?
Yes, He is. We do good works, we give alms, we go to Mass, we sing Christmas hymns . . . and we show our love for each, and our joy that Christ has come into the world, by giving each other loving, thoughtful presents. That’s not materialism, that’s just one way to show love. It’s not the only way, but it’s not a bad way, either!