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It’s Christmas season again. Santa is making his list and children the world over are making theirs, and parents are facing the annual dilemma: how much is too much (or too little) to buy for our kids? And since most of us buy them gifts to make them happy, what is the link between gifts and happiness?

In my childhood the season began with catalogs. These were not the anemic mailers you receive today. These were boulder-sized tomes, with hundreds of pages and an attitude, and enough heft that they were not to be lifted by toddlers or the elderly. The toy section extended for miles, and many trees sacrificed their lives each year so we could spend our evenings poring over the bounty. Eventually we would winnow down to a few that we really wanted and the holiday would arrive and it would be wonderful. Today the process is similar, but with about 100,000 times as many options. And Amazon.

First let’s start with what economists have told us for a long time: Economics is really, really boring. Just kidding. I mean it really is boring, but the economists don’t say this. Actually some of my friends are economists and this is what they say: human beings have unlimited wants, but limited resources to satisfy those wants. King Solomon put it this way in the book of Proverbs: “human desire is never satisfied, but the study of economics doth plague the soul.” I added that last part myself, but Solomon said the first part. Mick Jagger (who is 73 but looks way better than band-mate Keith Richards who is only 72) crooned, “You can’t always get what you want,” which is pretty much the same idea. In fact he sang that one line 15 times in the song, which makes you think he really believed it. Or maybe he just ran out of ideas. Or maybe Mick had an 8-track player or a silver tea set that Keith really wanted and this was Mick’s way of telling him to take a hike.

Sociologist Allison Pugh spent three years hanging out with elementary school kids in California; her ability to survive this harrowing exercise makes her a saint in my mind. She visited public, private, rich and poor schools, spending time with kids while they learned, played, and did kid things like eating dirt and tying shoes and arguing over whose dad is tougher. She also interviewed a bunch of their parents, and her conclusion nicely sums up our quandary:“…holidays can pose a big dilemma to parents, one that crystallizes an ongoing, larger dilemma in parenting. That dilemma is how much you want your child to be happy—meeting what you think are their desires—balanced against the worry that you’ll make your kids materialistic or spoiled and not grateful for what they have.” (book link)

That pretty much nails the problem, and here’s what she found:
1. The experience of not getting something they want causes short-lived pain for children, which they typically manage just fine. Translation: If you are unable to beg, borrow, or steal that ‘must have’ toy this year, your kid will not grow up to be a serial killer.
2. Talking about the latest thing is part of kids they communicate, but kids who don’t own that latest thing typically learn the lingo well enough to engage anyway. Translation: your child will not become a social outcast if he doesn’t get the latest thing. In ninth grade all my friends got the new Atari game system, and I got a typewriter. Thirty-nine years and a few hundred hours of therapy later, I am now just as happy as they are!
3. Parents play games with themselves with what they buy and what they choose to withhold. Less affluent parents may tell themselves a story that goes, “We got our child “X” so that proves we are good parents,” even if the home may be missing much more basic things. More affluent parents tend to withhold some particular item (“We aren’t getting our kid “Y” because nobody needs that”) while they shower their kids with tons of other stuff. Pugh calls this ‘symbolic deprivation,’ which lets parents feel less materialistic than their neighbors.
4. This set of parental choices is part of a larger dance, in which parents try to define their home’s culture in light of, and in contrast to, the broader culture. Each parental choice builds on that narrative.

So how many gifts should you give? There are plenty of strategies on Google (suggestions range from 3 gifts per child to 20), but whatever gift strategy you settle on, here are a few points to remember.

• Regardless of how amazing it may be, no gift will ever fully satisfy anyone. Many gifts are actually less satisfying once we own them than they were when we were anticipating them.
• Things like family, friends, and meals eaten together are the parts of the holiday that have lasting value, and these should be the focus. All my childhood toys are gone but I treasure memories of holiday silliness with all my cousins. Especially one of them (you know who you are).
• For each member of the family, consider the balance of time and effort between receiving gifts and giving gifts. Kids may wind up involved primarily on the receiving end, which can convey that the holiday is mostly about collecting prizes.
• If the gift exchange vanished this year, how much holiday would be left? In other words, is that the main reason the date matters, or just one great part of a much bigger experience? And don’t assume your kids see it like you do, as they are having a different experience from a different perspective, so (gulp) ask them.

As a parent you are helping your kids develop a vision of the world and how things work. If you teach them that owning a ton of cool toys is what makes life good, what happens when they get older and the toys cost ten times as much? Or a hundred? And where do they turn when they wake up someday and realize they already own all the toys and they are still unhappy?

Coming soon: Why untangling yarn makes some people happy. No, I’m not kidding.

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