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Gift Giving: Playing Santa in the Year of Coronavirus

By Martha Michael

Gift Giving and Coronavirus

It's a recurring dilemma, but this Christmas there are more families than usual struggling financially, which means more children will be wondering why Santa’s load is so light. Many American homes are overrun by toys the kids don’t use, and it’s a drain on their ability to focus while also making it hard to foster a healthy attitude of gratitude.

Perhaps a year like this one, with its economic and health challenges due to COVID-19, is the perfect time for Kris Kringle to pull away from the decadent deliveries of Christmas past.

Quality vs. Quantity

Because no two families are alike, there are many opinions about the most appropriate number of gifts for children at Christmastime.

A blog on says the magic number is three. Writer Katharine Stahl makes the argument that every child should receive three gifts -- no more and no less.

Most American parents make quantity a big priority, or at least they believe their children do. Stahl says that a happy middle ground is to give the kids enough gifts to feel they scored, but limit the number so each present has more value. As spectacular as the toys may be, after the third gift they seem to become increasingly less meaningful. The exercise of unwrapping becomes mechanical and it’s too much for them to process so they don’t appreciate what follows.

“It becomes an unfulfilling game of quantity over quality,” Stahl says. “They could literally be opening the same FurReal Friends puppy over and over again and they probably wouldn't notice until about the fourth one. In short, buy too many presents and not only have you wasted your hard-earned loot, but you've also ensured that your kids won't even remember half of what they've received.”

An article by therapist Becky Mansfield of looks at the reasons we buy too many toys for our kids. She explains the possible motives for overspending on gifts:

  • We think it’s a cute or fun idea
  • It seems like a good deal
  • We see an ad for a sale
  • It makes the kids happy
  • We do it for ourselves, not them

Practical vs. Frivolous Gifting

When contemplating our motives for overindulging our kids as Mansfield suggests, we can also take time to reflect on the items themselves. By turning to more practical gifting we are less likely to end up with the unnecessary inventory of playthings.

There are plenty of gift ideas that serve a purpose rather than simply entertain, such as:

  • Bedding
  • Bedroom décor
  • Wall art
  • Clock
  • Clothes
  • Activity tracking watch
  • Travel supplies

Another way to minimize the buildup of stuff is to give gifts that involve experiences or tools for making memories. Stahl offers some ideas, including:

  • Photo blanket
  • Recipe book and measuring cups
  • Piggy bank
  • Personalized book
  • Museum membership
  • Hiking trip
  • Sewing kit
  • Craft supplies

Luxuries vs. Money-Saving Gifts

A new pair of shoes may sound like modest gifting, but not if they are Air Jordans. Fewer families have the money for luxury items and with the economic challenges this year; a good middle ground is not only to purchase gifts that serve a purpose, but find off-brands or a level down from the luxury market.

An article in Wired Magazine talks about great practical gifts for new parents rather than recent attention-getters -- from Montessori mobiles to toy baby grands. You can make your mark by supporting families with more useful supplies such as:

  • No-touch thermometer
  • Diaper balm
  • Coffee subscription
  • Baby monitor
  • Air purifier
  • Baby food masher

Older kids are harder to please, but with some creativity you can satisfy their taste. Bags don’t have to be Stella McCartney and sunglasses don’t have to be Tom Ford. Take a pass on the expensive concert tickets to invest in something more reasonable such as backpacking supplies or modest furniture.

Explaining Cutbacks to Kids

If the idea resonates with you, but you need reasons to streamline your life, you can turn to Ruth Soukup, author of Living Well, Spending Less: 12 Secrets of the Good Life. She’s an entrepreneur who practices what she preaches.

The idea of a toy-free existence was conceived by Soukup when she decided the endless collection of plastic playthings was doing more harm than good to her daughters. She noticed a growing lack of contentment and a shrinking use of creativity, so she packed up all their toys.

“The truth is that when I took all their stuff away, I was terrified at what would happen. I worried that I was scarring them for life, depriving them of some essential developmental need, taking away their ability to self-entertain,” Soukup says. “In reality, the opposite has happened. Instead of being bored, they seem to have no shortage of things to do. Their attention span is much longer, and they are able to mindfully focus on their task at hand. They color or read for hours at a time and happily spend the entire afternoon playing hide & seek or pretend.”

Soukup acknowledges the difficulty in communicating love without participating in the traditional holiday gift exchange. You don’t want to hurt people’s feelings by rejecting their expression of generosity, nor force others to bend to your change in priorities. The solution is honest conversation with both the children and your loved ones who may be tempted to pile on dozens of gifts when your goal is to declutter. Sometimes it works to respectfully encourage them to shift the focus and opt for educational materials instead of stuffed animals.

Though American society hasn’t fallen to Dickensian levels, the spirit of Tiny Tim is a reminder to celebrate the holidays even when they don’t involve the affluence of the past. The mental health benefits begin now and can pay an even bigger dividend when Christmas Future comes around.

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