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Focus on togetherness, charity during holidays - not spoiling kids, parents say

11/13/2014 02:50 EST | Updated 01/13/2015 05:59 EST
TORONTO - For the first few years of Ethan's life, Deanna McFadden and her husband, Brian Poirier, had a simple request for family when it came to celebrating their son's birthday: no presents.

Now aged four, Ethan receives gifts on his birthday and at Christmas. And while she's grateful for the generosity of her relatives, McFadden still doesn't want them to go overboard.

"For Christmas, my aunts will ask me what he needs ... and I will say: 'Nothing, he doesn't need anything. If you'd like to buy one small thing, get him a little bit of Lego — he loves Lego.' Things that will last a little bit longer than, say, the most expensive toy in the marketplace," said McFadden, a Toronto-based publishing professional and writer.

McFadden and Poirier make an effort to manage Ethan's expectations around presents and not make exchanging gifts the focal point.

"We've been having conversations with Ethan all year about Christmas that: 'Santa has so many things that he has to get, remember that you're only going to get a couple of things. Make sure you're only asking for the couple of things that you really want.'

"I think we're starting to make him understand — not about anti-commercialism, in a sense — but that these two events that happen in a year where you do get presents, his expectations are that he's not going to be totally spoiled. But it's hard."

While some adults may be inclined to spoil kids during the holidays, McFadden echoes sentiments expressed by other parents keen on curtailing the excess around gift-giving.

Sandra Grahame, CEO of personal finance brand Smart Cookies, tries to be specific with loved ones about what her son, Jack, likes and needs.

"We find unless we give specific ideas then it's just a free for all," said the Denver-based Grahame who also has a seven-month-old daughter Violet.

Grahame plans to repeat what she did last year: compiling and distributing a wish list of books suitable for Jack, who turns three on Dec. 6.

Another gift-giving idea is providing experiences, like a yearly pass to the zoo or a children's museum, Grahame said. Organizing a Secret Santa — an anonymous gift exchange game — or gathering funds and gifts to support a family in need through charity are also potential alternatives, she noted.

For her part, Grahame is working on steering chatter away from gifts and emphasizing other key aspects of the holidays with Jack.

"We are having those discussions that this is the time for family and for getting together and saying what we love about each other."

While parents may be inclined to scale back, it may still prove challenging to dissuade well-intentioned loved ones from following suit — or even broaching the subject in the first place.

"It's tricky," said Tamar Satov, senior editor at CPA Magazine, published by Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada. "I don't know that you can really keep other people doing what they want to do. They want to be generous and they want to create memories, but there's only so much you can do with other people.

"There can be the Secret Santa or delegating who will buy for which person, so that limits the number of gifts. Putting a price limit on gifts can also work. But I think it's fair to say that people are going to do what they want to do even if you set those limits.

"I think you should always accept gifts graciously. I don't think anyone's intending to be malicious or undermine what you're trying to teach your kids."

Still, Satov said there are strategies parents can consider when relatives ask for input.

"You can either have a discussion and say: 'We'd really like to focus on celebrating the holiday and being together rather than on the gifts,' and 'Can we maybe organize a get-together and not worry so much about the gifts? Just enjoy each other's company,'" said Satov, mother to Adam, eight.

If they still insist on spending, Satov suggested providing experiences the gift-giver can enjoy with the child. And while it may sound counterintuitive, gift cards cards can be a good alternative.

"People think: 'Well, that's the epitome of materialism because it's just money.' The difference there is you're actually giving your child the opportunity to budget in a sense," said Satov, blogger at Raising Money-Smart Kids, part of CPA Canada's financial literacy program.

"They get to see and understand what that amount of money can buy. They get a sense of what things cost. And they don't have to use it immediately, so it's not like this big dump of gifts all at once."

Parents also can avoid adding to the present pile by perhaps focusing on more practical gifts, Satov noted.

"A lot of stores now have themed T-shirts and pyjamas and socks — and kids do like these things. They become their favourites."

— Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.

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