Deprivation Can Be Beneficial: Why I Withhold Presents From My Daughter

Until recently, the average American child received 70 toys per year -- that’s more than one toy a week, per child!
Publish date:
November 27, 2012

For Christmas last year, my husband and I bought our 3-year-old daughter some Lincoln Logs, but we ended up not giving them to her for a couple of months.

Considering the fact that the adults in our family had agreed not to exchange gifts among themselves, and to only get things for the kids, there were a lot of presents under our miniature tree.

A flurry of gift unwrapping ensued, and so did the sensory overload–at a certain point, our daughter stopped paying attention to the gifts around her. It seemed to us that she would have been equally happy if she had received just one or two gifts, as opposed to the six or seven she got that night.

Suddenly, it didn’t seem so important to give her the Lincoln Logs, so we let her open a few more gifts, and then snuck the rest of the presents back upstairs.

Why We Chose to Withhold Gifts

Our decision wasn’t really related to money -– the fake Lincoln Logs only cost $11.

In general, we can afford to buy our daughter just about anything that she wants. My husband and I live near Berkeley, California, and both of us work. He’s a researcher at a university, and I’m a production editor at a scientific publisher.

It’s not surprising that, until recently, the average American child received 70 toys per year -– that’s more than one toy a week, per child! -- when used kids’ stuff is available on Craigslist 24 hours a day and gifts from well-meaning friends and relatives stream in regularly.

In time-deferring the Lincoln Logs and other gifts, my husband and I were attempting to take a stand against toy overload, and abide by the less-choice-is-better principle. We did eventually give her the remaining gifts, but we staggered them throughout the next few months to make sure that she fully appreciated each one on its own.

A little deprivation really makes you savor something when you finally get it. I still remember how my brothers and I begged our mom for an Atari, which was $200 back in the ’80s. She finally caved, but she said that the Atari would be our birthday and Christmas presents for all three of us for the next two years -– and she stuck to it. Boy, did we appreciate that Atari!

Why This Is Our New Gift-Giving Tradition

We’ll try to continue to give as few new presents as possible. For my daughter’s upcoming fourth birthday, we’ll try a book swap, in which every kid brings a book to trade. It sounds better than up to 15 or more presents all at once, since the protocol seems to be to invite all the kids in my daughter’s preschool. It also avoids the awkwardness of a “no gifts” policy, which we’ve also tried. But it’s hard for people not to bring presents to a birthday party.

Honestly, I don’t think that my daughter will mind. She’s pretty indifferent about gifts. I’m sure this will change, but we’re appreciating it for now.

We’re not strict “no toys” people. They have a huge developmental role to play when it comes to imagination, escapism and fun. I just don’t think it’s necessary to have tons of them, seeing as my daughter can play with whatever is around and use her imagination to fill in the blanks. All she needs for a picnic is a burp cloth for the ground covering, some stuffed animals for company and imaginary food.

Of course, we wouldn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable by turning down a gift. So we usually welcome the gift, integrating it into our lives as best we can. We do, however, censor toys we feel aren’t necessary: For example, I never gave her a cell phone gifted from a relative–I figure she’ll have enough electronic gadgets later on.

What This Means for the Future

I know her peers will be a huge influence on how she views materialism and consumerism, and hopefully we, as her family, will have influence as well. She’ll probably observe after a while that my husband and I aren’t huge gifters -- we don’t exchange for birthdays, anniversaries or Christmas.

So far, my daughter hasn’t really asked for things. She even laughs at that Berenstein Bears book, “The Gimmies,” in which two kid bears throw temper tantrums because they don’t get the toys they want.

She seems good at self-regulating, but when she starts asking for things, we’ll need to provide limits. One option is an allowance, in which we’d make clear that she needs to cover what she wants for the week, and probably require her to save a certain amount and give it to charity.

A lot of our extended family is on board, too. My mother suggested giving animals through Heifer International for Christmas, which I thought was a great idea. My husband and I showed our daughter the catalog, and explained that not every kid in the world has a grocery store to go to when they want more to eat. She had fun picking out a goat that will provide milk, cheese and yogurt for a family.

Gift-giving may never be the same–and that’s a good thing.

Reprinted with permission from LearnVest. Want more?

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