Connect Motherhood

Managing Christmas Expectations: How to Explain Value (and Values) to Kids

Melanie Brooks  |  December 1, 2020

I began to wonder: Had I crushed my child's Christmas dream? Am I a mean mom for discussing budget before buying presents?

Christmas is a big holiday in my family. Other than birthdays, it’s the only time we buy each other presents. My son Ian, who is 8, has already heard  “Want something? Put it on your list!” no less than 42,816 times during his short lifespan.

For my family, the gift-giving makes the holidays an extra special time. Any other time of year, if my son and his cousins (my sister’s kids) are expected to earn and save money for any toys they. My sister and I cover all the basics for our kids, like socks, yogurt, and toothpaste — but LEGOs? No. 

Wish List

This year for Christmas, my son has asked for a Nintendo Switch. It is by far, the most expensive thing he has ever asked for. When we saw it in the Amazon catalog that came in the mail (smooth move, Amazon), I had him read aloud how much it costs. His reaction? “That’s a lot of money, Mom.”

To be honest, I was delighted he recognized that the Nintendo Switch costs a lot of money. I told him that if his dad and I were to decide to fulfill this Christmas wish, it would mean that it would be the only gift he’d get from us that year. “I’m ok with that!” he said. I did suggest he go through the catalog and circle some other things he’d like so his grandparents would have some idea of what he wanted. Other than the Nintendo Switch, a Pokemon controller to go with it, and the entire page of Nerf guns, he didn’t circle anything else. 

Guilt Sets In: Am I a Mean Mom?

When I asked Ian what he was going to ask Santa for this year, he listed off the Nerf guns, then a bunch of other stuff I’d never heard him mention before. 

“Wait a minute!”  I said. “I thought you wanted a Nintendo Switch!” 

“That’s an impossible gift, Mom,” he answered. “I’m just saving up my own money to get one someday.”

Yikes. Had I crushed Ian’s Christmas dream? Am I a mean mom? I turned to a couple of experts to find out.

READ MORE: 10 Financial Lessons To Teach The Girls In Your Life Right Now

Trae Bodge, Smart Shopping Expert at and mom of a 14-year-old-girl, made me feel a bit better. “I don’t think you’re a mean Mom,” she answered. “In fact, transparency about cost is something I encourage. If you don’t talk about cost, kids have no idea how one thing differs from another. For example, a Rubik’s cube and a Nintendo Switch are not equal.” Bodge says. 

I asked Matt Lundquist, psychotherapist and family therapist, the founder and clinical director of Tribeca Therapy, to weigh in with his thoughts. 

“Talking to kids about what things cost is important for a few reasons,” says Lundquist, who also happens to be the father of an eight-year-old. “One, of course, is so that they can develop an understanding of economic principles like opportunity cost (if I buy this I can’t buy that), scarcity (there are only so many things I can buy), and also to simply get a sense of what different kinds of things cost.”

Explaining Your Money Values to Your Kids

Families (like mine) who choose to value the holidays over other spending choices, Lundquist explains, can make Christmas, Hanukkah, and birthday presents almost mystical for kids. This is definitely the case for Ian. “The Nintendo Switch gift is a lot,” Lundquist tells me, “but it sounds like it’s an ‘a lot’ that you’ve planned for and can afford.” 

Lundquist recommended that I have a couple follow-up conversations with Ian to allay any fears or guilt he may have for requesting an expensive gift. Here are his suggested talking points:

  • Talk about how your family has decided to prioritize Christmas economically, and the ways you’ve saved for and budgeted for this event. 
  • Let Ian know that while many people aren’t as fortunate, especially given the pandemic (which I’m sure he can understand), that your family is doing well. 
  • Reinforce that you are so proud that he understands that families have limited funds, but that mom and dad will always make good financial decisions so that your family can be secure and everyone can share in enjoying nice things from time to time.

So, I’ve got a little bit of work to do before Christmas morning. But I look forward to these conversations with Ian… And  I’m also looking forward to our first Nintendo Switch battle, after I soak up the joy on his face when he realizes what’s waiting for him under the tree. 

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