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Christmas creep begins! Start managing kids' holiday expectations now

Jacoba Urist

For Wilson Urist, 3, it's never too soon to look at holiday gift ideas.

Only recently, everyone was asking my son what he planned on being for Halloween. With trick-or-treating behind us, they’re already asking him what he wants for the holidays.

The music, marketing campaigns and “Christmas Creep,” as it’s known among retailers, really is starting earlier every year, which means parents need to start managing their child’s expectations about holiday gifts now— before the shopping season really kicks into high gear.

“I hate it,” says Laura McMullin, a New York City mom. “My almost-4-year-old son has been holding on to these toy circulars that come in the newspaper for weeks already.” He’s circled all the stuff he expects to see under his tree Christmas morning, and he wants to be sure that his parents get the message.   

While adults may enjoy the surprise element of gift-giving, the last thing any parent needs is a melt-down on Christmas morning or in front of the Menorah because a kid wasn’t prepared for the fact that they wouldn't be getting everything on their list.

Columbia University psychiatrist Dr. Drew Ramsey advises parents that an ounce of prevention is key during the holiday season, especially if your kid is craving something that you’re not going to buy. (In our Manhattan apartment, that would be a child-sized teepee that would take over most of my 3-year-old’s room.)

“It’s really important to speak directly to your children about what they can and can’t expect for Hanukkah or Christmas,” says  Ramsey. “Whether they still believe in Santa or know that you’re headed to the mall, you’ve got to manage their expectations as soon as possible.”

He reminds parents that even if kids aren’t fully rational beings, with highly developed reasoning skills, they can still understand the concept that you can’t get everything you want— and that you shouldn’t get everything you want all the time— from a relatively young age.

As for those toy circulars, Ramsey says, be as direct as possible. Use the opportunity to show your child how to be discerning, and pick something that they’re really excited about. When it comes to teaching a kid about consumerism, limits, and handling disappointment, Ramsey believes adults are like training wheels. Parents have to help children of all ages cope with the reality that they can’t just buy everything in a store.

“The catalogues can actually help you with this,” he explains. “Try to get your child to focus on one or two things and really draw them out and imagine how they’ll use the gifts all year.” 

Megan Sayers, the managing editor of ModernMom, advises people to focus their kids on the giving part of the season before the getting — and to try to open their eyes to the fact that not every child is lucky enough to expect gifts this December.

One of Sayers' colleagues has her kids go to their playroom with a big box every year, right around when that “Christmas Creep” starts, and fill it up with old toys that they’ve outgrown or tossed aside. Then, Sayers says, they all bring the box to a local donation center together, before they sit down to start planning their own holiday wish list. 

For some of us parents, the holiday season is also the time when we feel we have to answer for all our past promises and pony up the toys we’ve been pushing off all year — all those vague, "Oh, if you're good maybe Santa will bring that" promises.

Lauren Scher, a lawyer and mother of 3-and-half-year-old Holden and 6-year old Milly, says every time her kids ask for something after their birthdays, she and her husband tell them it can be for Hanukkah.

“A lot of the time they forget about a particular item,” she writes in an email, “because it’s just not that important to them. But the ones they still ask for now, we will get them for a night of Hanukkah.” Scher says they make sure not all eight nights are big items,. Some gifts are small, like a pack of cards, which she points out ends up providing many more hours of playtime with the family than the super-expensive doll her daughter really wanted.

Related story: How to teach smart money habits over the holidays     

Unfortunately, grandparents aren’t always the best when it comes to setting limits or dialing down a child’s holiday expectations.

Ramsey tells folks to be crystal clear with grandparents about gifts that are totally out of bounds this season. For instance, if you don’t want your child to wear makeup or you don’t want toy guns or motorized vehicles, be firm with relatives. At the same time, he says, “It’s also about being flexible and understanding that grandparents can play a special role when it comes to pampering children during the holidays.”

Allison Winn Scotch, author of “The Song Remains The Same” and mom of two, says she and her husband really discourage the entire gift-giving obsession.

“Not because I’m a scrooge,” she explains. “But because it can certainly create this mindset of  ‘more, more, more’ and my kids already have more than they could need.”

Scotch says it’s best to provide grandparents with firm guidelines and specific items to purchase. With this in mind, Scotch tells her parents and in-laws about one big-ticket item that her kids have been requesting, and count on that being a special gift.

Hmm… maybe I should give the green light on that teepee after all?

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