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Why We Indulge Our Kids on the Holidays

Photograph by Getty Images

Fully engaged in the holiday season, families everywhere are aglow with positive expectations for joyous celebrations and a hefty haul of smile-inducing gifts for their children. In fact, a recent report shows that U.S. parents spent $271 per child last Christmas and are expected to spend even more this year.

While that is a whopping $67 increase in the total amount spent over the last three years, we can’t blame parents for celebrating through abundant gift giving during an upswing in our economy. But there’s more to it than that. In fact, there may be a deep-seated psychological motivation to overindulging children during the holidays.

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Michelle Cleary, a New York–based psychotherapist, believes the reasons parents are spending more on their children during the holidays are as diverse as the gifts they are giving—but the most common motivators are guilt, compensation and connection.

“It's very common for both parents to work, and it is equally common for their children to be in day care, in after school programs, or with extended family for more time than they are with mom and dad,” Cleary states. “Often, parents feel very guilty about this. But that guilt is temporarily quieted when their little princess's face lights up at the sight of Doc McStuffin's Get Better Check-up Center under the tree. That break from guilt is a major motivation to spend more and more, especially during the holidays.”

Cleary says parents are also using gift giving as compensation for the guilt they feel for working too much. “When a parent is overwhelmed it seems a lot easier to give things then it does to give time,” she says.

“No one wants to be the parent on Christmas morning answering questions about why there are less presents than last year.”

Furthermore, marketing professionals are doing a great job hypnotizing consumers, Cleary claims, saying that the endless pop-up ads, commercials and images of what others have bought or are gifting that we see on Facebook, while surfing the Web, and on radio and television have a strong influence on how parents connect with their children. When the latest fads and tech toys are plastered across every screen we encounter, discussing the new release becomes dinner table chatter for parents and children. Ultimately, as the object of attention is passed from one hand to another, it becomes the connection between parents, their children and the world.

Savvy mom blogger Veronica Foale, is sidestepping the gotta-have-it trend this holiday season. Foale, who writes the blog Some Day We Will Sleep, says that delighting her children during the holidays led to overspending in the past. “I think as children get older, we're inclined to try and top each holiday for them, making each Christmas bigger, and thus, more memorable,” Foale says. “No one wants to be the parent on Christmas morning answering questions about why there are less presents than last year.”

Foale has promised to cut back on Christmas spending this year. She set a budget for $75 for each child, aiming to create a larger, shared present and a few other toys and clothes for all three of them. Her children weren’t exactly overjoyed by the news that there will less gift giving. Her 7-year-old was annoyed until she explained that there will still be gifts, just better ones.

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The shift in Foale’s family holiday spending budget was less about dwindling finances and more about teaching their children about appreciation. “We changed because while we can afford lots of presents, I'd prefer that my children appreciated the gifts they did get, rather than going through, unwrapping things solely for the sake of it,” she says. “This year, they'll all get deeply thoughtful gifts that I know they'll love, rather than plastic impulse buys.”

Are you spending more this year?

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