Parenting for the Perplexed: Eight days of gifts — is it too many?

Thursday, November 29, 2012 | by rachel biale

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page: Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale or via .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


Chanukah is nearing, and we are blessed with a large extended family. We are a bit worried about HPO — Hanukkah Presents Overdose. Last year, our son was almost 2 and seemed overwhelmed. I’m afraid he disappointed many relatives by being more interested in the boxes than in the presents. Advice? — H.G., San Francisco


Dear H.G.: Glad you have the presence of mind to realize you should make a “gifts response plan” to handle the anticipated avalanche. This year, Chanukah comes well before Christmas. That offers a nice opportunity to differentiate between the two holidays and, should the pile of presents be really excessive, to donate some of them (at least, any duplicates) to Christmas toy drives sponsored by local fire departments.

When my daughter was around the age your child is now, a family in her preschool invited us to a Christmas Day lunch. It was a year like this one, when Chanukah and Christmas were more than two weeks apart, so we thought there would be no issue with “Christmas confusion” or “Christmas envy.”

We arrived in the late morning to find the family huddled rather glumly in the living room, where their little boy was crying his eyes out. “What’s wrong?” I asked the distraught parents. “He is crying because he doesn’t know what to do with so many presents. He doesn’t know how to choose which ones to open.”

I am sure you have seen similar scenes at birthday parties. The 4-year-old “birthday boy,” already ratcheted up to his maximum tolerance with excitement and sugar, starts opening the presents and soon falls apart. This situation also makes the other kids unhappy, because each child is waiting to see the birthday boy open his/her present. Sitting patiently through 10 gifts is not in their repertoire.

Presumably, family members who have brought presents have a longer attention span, but even mature adults want their gift properly appreciated. Some young children are attuned to these expectations and feel a lot of pressure.

My preferred guideline for birthday parties (and Chanukah parties) is a balanced equation of age-guests-gifts. In other words, a 4-year-old would have four guests at his birthday party and get four presents. Think that sounds too limiting for Chanukah? Then double it, so your 4-year-old gets eight presents in all (one for each day).

This issue connects to one I raised in my Nov. 16 column about cultivating thankfulness in children. Too many presents undermine that. How much thankfulness should a child be expected to feel?

One way to address this is with thank-you cards. Wait to write each one until after your child has had a chance to play with or use the gift. For example, if your child gets a painting-easel set from her grandparents, have her use it to make art for them. When accompanied by a note that says “I painted this picture with the paints and easel you gave me!,” the thank-you will mean much more to both your child and the grandparents than will a store-bought card or even a hand-made note.

I also strongly urge you to plan several other family activities for Chanukah that are not focused on gifts, but rather on fun times together and generosity toward others. An additional benefit of the gap between Christmas and Chanukah is that you can find a volunteer opportunity for Christmas Day or the week before, such as serving Christmas dinner at a homeless shelter, donating and/or wrapping gifts for needy kids, etc.

If your family is interfaith and you celebrate both holidays, you’ll have a double dose of presents. Again, think about a reasonable limit on how many gifts your child gets, and balance it with presents to be given. Next column, I’ll write more about the sometimes delicate negotiations around “Christmas at Grandma’s.”