SALT LAKE CITY — When the pile of presents threatens to topple the Christmas tree, parents may suspect they’ve gone too far. But what is the ideal number of holiday gifts for a child, the number that makes a child happy, not spoiled?
Some people say that three gifts are sufficient since that’s all the baby Jesus got. Others go by a “rule of four” or seven or 10. And some parents delight in celebrating abundance and want Christmas to be a time of merry excess in contrast to the disciplines of regular life.
But regardless of how they choose to handle gift-giving, parents should be aware that what they do in December may shape their children’s attitudes and behavior for the rest of the year, says Tim Kasser, an Illinois professor who studies materialism.
“We know that one of the ways in which children, especially, are likely to take on materialistic values is through the modeling of family members,” Kasser said. “While to my knowledge, no one has directly studied that in the context of Christmas gift-giving, it seems likely to me that Christmas gift-giving is one of those times when that modeling is especially salient."
And thoughtfully establishing a tradition of a certain number of gifts — and the type — when children are young can help head off problems later when the children are older and confronted with peers whose parents go over the top, parenting experts say.
The cost of excess
Nearly two decades ago, Kasser, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, investigated the correlation between holiday happiness and specific activities, such as helping others or eating well.
In a subsequent report “What Makes for a Merry Christmas?,” published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, Kasser and co-author Kennon Sheldon concluded that people are happier when their holidays are more about family and religion, and less so when they focus on spending money or receiving gifts.
The researchers talked to adults, not children, and noted that older people were more likely to be happier at Christmas “although this effect was largely explained by more frequent experiences of religion and lessened salience of receiving," Kasser and Sheldon wrote. And people who limited their spending at Christmas and engaged in practices such as drawing names and setting limits on spending had lower levels of well-being.
But the findings are relevant for parents as they think about how many presents their children will unwrap on Christmas morning or during Hanukkah.
"It does strike me that the more excessive the gift-giving is, the more likely a child — especially a young child — is likely to receive the message that possessions and getting stuff are really important," Kasser said. "And that’s another drop in the bucket toward developing a strong materialistic value orientation.”
This should matter to parents, he said, because research has shown that people who have materialistic values are less likely to be happy and more likely to be depressed and anxious; they’re also more likely to be competitive and manipulative, and less likely to be empathetic. Children with material values also have lower grades in school and are less likely to care about learning for learning’s sake, he said.
Dr. Mark Bertin, a developmental pediatrician in Pleasantville, New York, also notes that research has shown that giving gifts is more important to long-term happiness than receiving gifts.
“What’s important is the perspective we’re bringing to the holidays,” said Bertin, the author of “How Children Thrive.”
“We want kids to have fun, and we want them to enjoy getting stuff without swamping them and teaching them to feel entitled to everything,” he said. “Really, the answer is to find some balance of giving them gifts that have lasting pleasure and giving a minimum of really big gifts so they really value the ones they do get.”
Rules of 3, 4 and 10
Efforts to limit the number of gifts have gained traction in recent years through social media, where some mothers promote rules of reasonable gift giving such as the “3-gift rule” or the “4-gift rule.”
The 3-gift rule cites the wise men’s offering to the infant Jesus — gold, frankincense and myrrh — and suggests that what’s good enough for the savior of the world should be good enough for your children.
Writing on the website Twiniversity.com, Nashville mother Shellie Fossick said some people interpret this rule as three gifts of any kind; others, as three gifts of special significance: gold, meaning something the child will treasure; myrrh, a gift for the body (such as lotion or clothes); and frankincense, a spiritual gift such as a Bible or nativity set.
Fossick says she initially adopted the 3-gift rule for her twins mainly because it gives her more time to spend on things that matter more than shopping.
“In previous years, I just did not feel like I had the time to cherish those precious and fleeting moments that are unique to the holiday season,” Fossick wrote. “I spent all of the time before Christmas eking out hours and minutes to search for piles of gifts to put under the tree, and the day of Christmas reading instructions and putting together plastic contraptions that my kids lost interest in almost immediately.”
As her children grew older — the twins are now 10 — Fossick shifted from emphasizing the number of presents to giving gifts that are about an experience (such as tennis lessons) instead of things. She said it's especially difficult to stick to a specific number when doting grandparents and other relatives are involved.
However, she added, "It did help to have a target number instead of just purchasing willy-nilly and then trying to make sure numbers were even when it got close to the big day."
Another plan popular with parenting bloggers is the Rule of 4 — giving children something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read. That rule, says Heather Aliano, a mother of four who lives in Omaha, Nebraska, completely changed her family’s Christmas for the better.
When Aliano was a child, her parents made Christmas “a huge production.” “There was a mountain of gifts under the tree, and overfilled stockings, and it was downright magical to wake up to as a child," she said.
When Aliano and her husband had their first child, however, they couldn’t afford an over-the-top Christmas, and as her family grew, they decided they didn’t want to deal with the potential problems that come from excess, so they adopted the 4-gift rule with one addition — a fifth gift, from Santa.
Other parents have come up with variations such as the Rule of 10, adding six more gifts to the original four: something to wear on your feet, something to make, something to do, something to play as a family, something to give to others, and something to do for others.
'It can change again'
Aliano’s experience shows that people can change the way they experience Christmas and still find pleasure in the holiday, something that has been demonstrated throughout history, said William B. Waits, a retired anthropologist and attorney in New Jersey who wrote "The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of Gift Giving.”
Contrary to the idea that Christmas was once a more spiritual, less commercial celebration, historians like Stephen Nissenbaum have written that in Colonial America the holiday was often a bawdy, drunken occasion with little resemblance to its modern incarnation, or the event it commemorates, Jesus Christ’s birth.
In the early 1800s, a group of New Yorkers began to push for a more family-friendly celebration, and writers that included Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore helped to redefine Christmas with new traditions through literature. But an equally significant change occurred between 1880 and 1910 when American shifted from an agricultural society to an urban one, Waits said.
In agrarian America, families gave small, handmade gifts to each other at Christmas, such as baked goods for neighbors and homemade toys for children. They had time to invest in these gifts since the growing season was over. But after 1880, more Americans were living in cities “and no longer had an offseason” and industrialization allowed for manufactured gifts. Around 1910, people were giving inexpensive gifts, which Waits calls “gimcracks,” to 50 or 60 people, sometimes people they only casually knew.
In response to the pressure to give more gifts to more people, the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving was formed in 1912, and with public pressure, the incessant gift-giving eventually gave way to smaller circles for gifts, and Christmas cards for everyone else.
“We think of Christmas as being traditional; that it’s been the same forever. But it’s a more modern celebration than we think,” Waits said. “It’s been changed before, and it can change again.”
That was the experience of Aliano, who at first was nervous about implementing the 4-gift rule when her eldest child was 8. (The Alianos' children are now 4, 7, 10 and 12.) But she said her children are still thrilled on Christmas morning, even more than if they’d received a houseful of gimcracks, because of the thought she puts into her gifts. She works with a spreadsheet and begins planning the children’s gifts late in the summer.
While the children sometimes show interest in last-minute advertising blitzes, they don’t beg for more and know not to put in last-minute requests, which makes the holidays more peaceful. “They know I’ve been planning a long time and that we’ve established a culture in our house where that doesn’t fly," Aliano said.
“The planning is what makes me feel good about it, and I know even if I gave them a million small gifts, they wouldn’t be happier,” she said.