Steering our boys away from consumerism and toward qualities like kindness and generosity is a huge priority for my husband and me. And though we do a pretty good job, every year we struggle at Christmas. Between the desire to create a magical experience for our kids and making sure each one feels seen and loved, it's easy to get caught up in the "more is more" mentality that can lead to over-gifting with your kids. But we're ultimately raising men here, not perpetual 4-year-olds, and I want to do it well. If you're like us, you're also wondering, "How many gifts should your kid get at Christmas?" While some people attest that there's a sacred number or magic formula, most child development experts say it's a more nuanced question than that.
“The number of gifts expected is influenced by our cultural and familial traditions and expectations, which vary across families,” Renee Cachia, Ph.D., a child, adolescent, and parenting psychologist, tells Romper. Giving more gifts doesn’t equate to more gratefulness, either. “It’s important to remember that ‘too many’ gifts or over-gifting is a societal issue that us adults have created and that we have set the benchmark for what our children expect,” Cachia says.
So, how can parents figure out how many presents their kid should get at Christmas? There’s really not a universal number that will guarantee maximum utility for every family — everyone’s budgets are different, for one, and not all families put the same value on material things versus experiences. Set aside some time with your partner or loved ones to discuss the best way to approach the holidays for your unique family. Maybe three gifts per person is right for you; maybe you'll do more, maybe you’ll do less.
To help you navigate the million-dollar question, there are a few things you can consider as you map out how to play Santa this year.
How Children Perceive Their Gifts
Children love opening presents. This is not new information. But the gift itself isn’t likely to supply satisfaction in the long term after the rush of tearing into the wrapping paper has subsided. Cachia tells Romper that this can be explained by the developing prefrontal cortex of a child’s brain. “The reward circuit, or pleasure pathways, are located within the emotional limbic system in the brain,” she says, which is why “gifts stimulate such an imminent pleasurable response: a dopamine hit.”
In adult prefrontal cortexes, the functions that support delayed gratification — which inhibits impulsivity and encourages more thoughtful responses — are fully developed. But for a child’s brain, they are not, which makes children “neurologically vulnerable to seek the immediate reward and pleasure that a shiny new gift can provide,” Cachia says. The instant gratification from opening gift after gift “tends to be fleeting and extrinsic,” Cachia tells Romper, “meaning that an external or material item is providing short-term and non-lasting feelings of satisfaction.”
That’s why over-gifting actually may only be bolstering a kid’s thirst for even more presents the next year, rather than instilling more happiness or gratitude. “When we over-gift, we are often paying a high price for a very short-lived and fleeting pleasure,” Cachia notes.
And according to a 2017 study in Infant Behavior and Development, too many gifts, AKA too many toys to play with at once, also reduces the quality of a toddler’s play and hinders their creativity and focus. “When children open a gift and then say ‘next’, it might be time to reconsider,” says Cachia.
Quality Over Quantity
When deciding on how many Christmas gifts to get your child, Cachia encourages parents to take the time to reflect and consider deliberate and meaningful gifts. “For example, if your child is showing signs of representational play, plan gifts around pretend play that may last them the year,” she tells Romper.
You can have your children make a wish list, but according to Cachia, you should use it carefully. “If a child writes a list of gifts they would like to receive, they are likely to compare this to their gifts received, which not only zaps the spirit of the festivities but frames them to focus on what they didn’t get as opposed to what they did get.” Instead, she offers the idea of having kids put some real thought into what they want the most — only about two to three ideas, maximum — and then have them explain why. “Their children may surprise them with a thoughtful response,” she says. Considering each of the “whys” your child provides will then help you decide which items on the list to get for them.
The Gift Of Quality Time & Experiences
“Remember that our presence is more important than presents,” says Cachia. There are plenty of meaningful nonmaterial gifts and activities you can share with your children during the holidays that don’t require excessive spending.
Try taking action outside the home as a family. Christmas is an easy time to find a local volunteer opportunity, no matter what developmental stage your children are in. Families with older kids might enjoy serving food and sharing a meal with others at a Salvation Army lunch on Christmas Day. If your kids are still too little for something like that, consider visiting an assisted living community or making holiday cards for those in the hospital and the doctors and nurses caring for them.
Or, Cachia suggests using your child’s love language as a guide for choosing a Christmas present. Say their love language is “quality time,” then parents could “home-make a monthly ‘voucher’ the child can use to request a quality time activity throughout the year,” Cachia says. For “words of affirmation,” you could make them a booklet of thoughtful affirmations specifically tailored to your child. “This approach will not only get more bang for your buck,” offers Cachia, “but will also feel intrinsically rewarding, lighting your child up from the inside out.”
According to Cachia, what matters most is making your children feel seen, heard, and felt. “Creating meaningful memories in the form of holidays, family rituals, games nights, local adventures, and new experiences are all ways to create environments for deeper and more meaningful connections.”
In the same breath, the holidays are also an important time to practice being mindful with your children. “As our default when busy means we [can] become transactional, parents can practice paying attention to their children, with intention,” Cachia suggests. “This means slowing down to savor the moments you do have to play, talk, interact, and engage the wonder of and with your child.” When things get chaotic, she encourages parents to pause and tune into their own emotions, then their child’s, and take slow, deep breaths to “help to break the cycles of stress and reactiveness and to promote responsiveness and connectedness.”
Getting your kids excited to give — not just receive — during the holidays can be just as fun and rewarding for them. Instead of relying on how many presents you give your children, introduce them to the flip side of the exchange as an equal form of satisfaction.
“Parents can make gifting fun by having their child think of and select a gift for a selected friend or family member,” suggests Cachia. “They could be a ‘secret detective’ on a mission to work out what that person may like based on their knowledge of them.” The child can also be in charge of choosing the wrapping paper, helping wrap the present, and signing the card with a personal note (or telling you what to write). “If they feel included and emotionally invested in the giving experience, they will more likely reap the joy that giving gifts provides,” she says. It's about the intention behind the gifts. Sounds fun, right?
While there is likely not a magic number of gifts that is right for every family, there is certainly a need in our society to deemphasize the "gimmes" in this season — for children and adults. Regardless of the number of presents under the tree, the heart of the holiday is about giving rather than receiving, and any way you can instill that concept into your children is a total win.
Dauch, C., Imwalle, M., Ocasio, B., & Metz, A. E. (2017, November 27). The influence of the number of toys in the environment on toddlers' play. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0163638317301613.
Additional reporting by Mackenzie Sylvester.
This article was originally published on