The Practicalities of Giving Fewer Gifts to Kids

How does a parent actually reduce the number of presents under the Christmas tree?

little girl with gifts

Dannko / Getty Images

So you want to buy fewer gifts for your kids this Christmas? That's a great idea. It's a commonly repeated intention of many environmentally-minded parents who want to reduce their spending and impact on the planet, while teaching their children to be less consumerist and more content with what they already have. 

But once the aspirational thinking wears off, many parents are left wondering, "How do I actually do this?" How does one go from giving children numerous presents to hardly any at all? What will the tree look like on Christmas morning? Will the kids be disappointed?

These are important practical considerations. As someone who gives my children far fewer presents than the societal norm (two each, one from parents and one from Santa Claus, plus a stocking), I'd like to share my thoughts on how to go about embracing minimalist principles at a time of such materialistic abundance. 

I won't deny that the base of our tree looks considerably more bare than that of other households I've visited, but there's nothing wrong with that. One strategy I have is not to put any presents under the tree until Christmas Eve, after the kids have gone to bed. That way, they get the full effect of seeing an array of gifts when they wake up in the morning, and they get excited no matter what. (It also prevents them from figuring out what they're getting ahead of time by touching and shaking all the boxes!)

Physical Gifts

As I mentioned before, my kids get two presents. I consider the stocking to be a third of sorts, to be filled with treats – ideally consumables, such as candy, chocolate, mixed nuts, or gum, but also small, low-value items like bath toys, mittens, stickers, markers or pens, Pokémon cards (their current obsession), little games, individual toiletries and, of course, the obligatory clementine in the toe. 

For the two bigger gifts, the one from Santa Claus is the "fun" toy – perhaps an item they've asked for, or something their dad and I know they'll enjoy. Our gift to them is either an experience (more below) and/or something more practical, such as an item they need that we would've had to purchase for them anyway. While this may seem like a cop-out of sorts, I don't view it that way; the kids don't stop to analyze it, and they see it as another present to add to their pile. This year, for example, one will receive a pair of cross-country skis, since they're needed for a nordic ski program that starts in January.

One suggestion I've heard before is the Four Gift Rule. Kids get "something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read." It's a catchy rhyme that can help parents keep spending under control and adjust children's expectations. For me, though, I still think that's a lot of shopping, especially when you multiply it by three kids.

It's OK to buy secondhand gifts and to regift items. In fact, I've seen a significant push this year on social media to normalize this. Just look at how excited kids get in the toy section of a thrift store and take that as a cue that buying used items is fine. You could also propose a toy swap with friends whose kids have grown bored with their current belongings.

Parents should tag-team with other family members who typically give gifts to their children. Don't presume to change other people's gift-giving habits, but gently suggest what they might consider giving, if your kid has a particular need or desire for something. I don't get stressed about these additional gifts, but rather view them as taking the pressure off me. Even if the gifts don't come in right on Christmas Day, they contribute to the general "haul" that your kid gets and leaves them with an impression of abundance. Extended family members might even consider contributing financially to an experiential gift.

Consider giving older children a shared present. If there's a higher-value item you know they'd like, put a label on it for both of them and explain, once opened, that it's meant to be shared. Set out the sharing arrangement right away so everyone is satisfied.

Wrap everything! A minor detail, but it adds up to a big impression. I like to wrap every single little thing that goes into the kids' stockings and under the tree because it makes it that much more exciting for them to open. I realize there's an environmental cost to this, but it's less than buying additional toys for them; use natural paper and reuse it. Many of my pieces of wrapping paper have been in use for years.

Another subtle strategy is to get kids to do a thorough room clean-out a few days before Christmas. Not only does this make space for any incoming toys, but it will inevitably reunite them with old toys that they've forgotten about. Distracted by these exciting new discoveries, they may be less tuned into having fewer gifts under the tree.

Experiential Gifts

I'm a proponent of giving experiences over physical gifts, as these form memories that last so much longer than toys. In years gone by we've taken weekend trips to cities around Ontario, skated on outdoor rinks, wandered past beautiful window displays, eaten at nice restaurants, visited the aquarium, zoo, butterfly conservatory, museums, art galleries, and theater. These outings mean a lot to my kids, who live in a small town and are excited by the prospect of seeing a busy city. Now with COVID-19, options are limited. We'll stay closer to home, but still try to do something special – perhaps an overnight in a yurt at a nearby provincial park or a day of downhill skiing if the snow conditions are good. 

These experiences are given to the kids in the form of a note on Christmas morning, telling them what to expect. I think it's important to book the experiences as soon after Christmas as possible, so the child doesn't have to wait very long. Otherwise, it ceases to feel like an actual Christmas gift.

The Power of Traditions

So much of the magic of Christmas lies in the traditions that surround it. When you step back from physical gift-giving, you must embrace these traditions to fill up the season and make it more exciting. For example, several years ago I started making a gingerbread house with my kids at the end of November and it has become a favorite tradition ever since. It kicks off the holiday season as we use up the lingering Halloween candy and listen to Christmas songs for the first time. 

gingerbread house decorating
Decorating homemade gingerbread houses.

K Martinko

Setting up a tree and stringing up colored lights, singing carols, baking cookies and distributing to friends and neighbors, attending local Santa Claus parades followed by late-night hot chocolate, walking around at night to look at decorations and lights, and having a special Christmas Day dinner (even if it's just your immediate family this year) are some examples of traditions kids might enjoy. Make a point of doing these every year and the impression will be lasting.

This list is far from exhaustive, so please feel free to add any suggestions in the comments below.