Managing Kids' Expectations in a Season of Gifts and Gimmes

little kid looking at a christmas tree - kids' expectationsIn a shopping season on steroids, kids are encouraged to reveal their heart's desires in wish lists and letters to Santa. However, while gift catalogs and commercials inspire visions of XBoxes and iPads, how can parents on a budget manage their kids' expectations?

WalletPop sought the advice of New York-based experts Dr. Laurie Zelinger, Child Psychologist and Registered Play Therapist, Dr. Fred Zelinger, Psychologist and Dr. Susan Bartell, Parenting Psychologist and author of The Top 50 Questions Kids Askto learn how to maintain the excitement and anticipation of holiday gift-giving without going into debt to avoid disappointment.Whether kids realize it or not, tight budgets are tightest during the holidays. WalletPop asked the psychologists how much the kids should know about family finances in order to understand the effect on the gift pile.

"Beginning at age nine or 10, it is important to share family financial changes with your kids," said Dr. Bartell, "but do it in a way that makes sense to them and always be as positive as possible." Bartell said in some cases, such as the loss of a job, the situation may be obvious. "Then you might say, this year we will have just as wonderful a holiday as it always is, even though we are saving our money since mommy/daddy isn't working right now. But we will still enjoy our gifts -- even if they are smaller or fewer -- and mostly we will especially enjoy the fun we will have together."

Bartell says for kids under nine, "It is fine to simply say: you may or may not get everything on your list, what's important is to be appreciative and thankful."

According to psychologist Dr. Fred Zelinger, the news will go down more easily if kids have been kept abreast of the situation all along.

"It is important for parents to share those [financial] developments as they occur, allowing a child to process the information in stages. That permits the child to layer his information as it occurs so that he can understand it and begin to make his own predictions ... Change is more manageable for a child if he feels he has part of the ongoing system and evolution, so that even sudden unexpected financial reversals can be more readily accepted than if the child had been shielded from other difficult situations all along."

However, even if the kids had been on a need to know basis until now, Dr. Bartell believes it's not too late. "While it's better to begin sharing at a time other than the holidays, as long as you are gentle, age appropriate, honest, but don't over share your child will be fine. It's important always to emphasize that you are doing everything you can to keep them healthy and safe," says Bartell, "which is the most important thing for them to hear -- because it's what they're really worrying about." Not necessarily whether or not they will be scoring Video Girl Barbie.

Dr. Laurie Zelinger also advises, "parents shouldn't dwell on the details that would make a child feel anxious, but instead use everyday events as teachable moments." Zelinger gives the example of shopping together and pointing out price comparisons. "If parents indicate that they need to make thoughtful choices but can handle things and take care of the family, children will more easily follow in their stride and accept change without feeling devastated."

If a child is aware of the financial challenges, but still asks for a budget-busting list of big ticket items, Dr. Bartell insists parents should not succumb to guilt.

"Remember that not buying big toys is fine and your child will survive!" In fact, Bartell believes it's better to be straight with kids up front. "When your child asks for something," says Bartell, "Be clear, rather than saying maybe,you never know what Santa will bring, or we'll see. The vagueness will keep them hoping and they will be very disappointed. Rather say something like: I know you really want the Wii this Christmas, but it's not in the family budget. We're making sure that everyone gets gifts they will enjoy, but we also need to make sure we have enough money left over for clothes, food and our house. So this year we aren't buying really big gifts for anyone."

Dr. Laurie Zelinger agrees. "It's okay for a parent to ask his child to choose one or two of his favorite items from the list, explaining that the family is being careful about the things they buy." Zelinger says you might also want to share some of the choices you have made, such as exercising at home instead of joining a gym or driving the same car instead of buying a new one. Possible dialog might be: We're all making choices and getting some things we want, but not everything, she suggests."Teaching children to live with disappointment is a valuable lesson," says Zelinger, "and guiding them through the process, with you as a model, will form a foundation for future experiences when they face disappointment again."

In fact, if parents have been doing a good job of modeling the kind of financial responsibility they are trying to teach, and have experienced a loss in income through no fault of their own, Dr. Laurie Zelinger says there is no reason to feel guilty. However, "If they go out and blow their whole salary on lottery tickets ... then yes, they should feel guilty for not considering the bigger picture in realistic terms and depriving the family of that which was lost based on poor judgment."

If it's not money, but family philosophy that prevents parents from putting what the kids want under the tree, Dr. Laurie Zelinger says, again it's time to talk.

"Good communication between the parent and child would have revealed the parent's position on these toys in advance ... parents should use opportunities on a daily basis to teach their values to their child." Zelinger suggests a conversation that might go like this: Mommy and Santa don't agree that scary video games are right for children, so even though it looks so exciting to you, Santa won't be bringing one of them to our house. But he will bring other things that you will like." If it's a case of my best friend can have it, why not me? Zelinger says a firm reply is needed: Jordan's parents make decisions that they feel are right for their family. Daddy and I make decisions for our family and we decided that the answer is "no" to that, but "yes" to some of the other things we know you're been wishing for.

In the end, if the kids don't check everything off their wish list, Dr. Laurie Zelinger assures that's okay too. "Children need to learn how to make choices, prioritize, accept limits, deal with disappointments and appreciate value," she says. "Acquiescing to a child's "gimme, gimme" attitude will develop selfishness and a sense of entitlement that will be hard to break in the future."
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