Helping Your Kids Embrace a “More Fun, Less Stuff” Holiday

by Edna Rienzi   |   November 7, 2017

Kids Christmas

“More Fun, Less Stuff.” It’s a philosophy that many of us aspire to, especially when you think of “fun” (as we do) as shorthand for love, joy, meaning, and connection. All of the things that matter most to us—and the beliefs that we most want our children to value.

But how do we get our kids on board with a “more fun, less stuff” philosophy? 

This can be particularly difficult during the holiday season, when our children are bombarded with messages of “more, more, more” from marketers and from their peers. In fact, it can be so challenging that many of us just give in and buy piles of presents, seeking to justify our actions by comparing ourselves to families who really spoil their kids.

While giving in seems like the easier option, it may be detrimental in the long term. As psychology professor (and New Dream advisory council member) Tim Kasser explains in his book The High Price of Materialism, “people whose values center on the accumulation of wealth or material possessions face a greater risk of unhappiness, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and problems with intimacy—regardless of age, income, or culture.”

It’s probably safe to say that nobody wants to see their kids grow up to be anxious, sad, insecure, and alone. While too many gifts under the tree one year won’t necessarily inculcate materialistic values in our children, it certainly can’t help. And it’s never just one year of too many gifts, right?

Many of us have witnessed the slippery slope of having to “top” our past holiday gift giving the following year. In my family, we think of this as the “Dursley effect.” In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry’s cousin, Dudley Dursley, makes a big fuss when he receives 36 presents for his 11th birthday. When Dudley yells, “36! But last year, last year I had 37!” his father replies, “Yes, yes, but some of them are quite a bit bigger than last year.” Dudley’s response is, “I don’t care how big they are!”

So how do we raise a Harry Potter instead of a Dudley Dursley (without locking our kids in a closet for 11 years)? 

Here are six tips for helping your children get on board with a “more fun, less stuff” holiday season:

1.  Start with a conversation

If your kids are older and have certain expectations regarding the holidays and how they’re “supposed” to happen, start with a conversation. Bill Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, advises parents to start with a family conversation about what you most value about celebrations, with every family member getting a voice.

Then, introduce your desire to go for “depth and quality” rather than “numbers and spectacle.” Emphasize that you want your child to have fun. You can even tell your kids that you’re trying this as an experiment for the first year.

I find that my kids usually respond well when we tell them a bit about the studies and research around materialism and its impact on happiness. They’re not always immediately on board, but it does seem to have an impact on their thinking down the road. For younger kids, this short video from The Story of Stuff project can help to start the conversation.

2.  Limit screen time

Limiting kids’ screen time and exposure to ads, especially during the commercial buildup to the holidays, is an important way to help to ward off cases of the “gimmes.” 

Less screen time also ensures more time and space to connect with your children about what is really valuable about your family holidays.

3.  Remember the saying, “Monkey See, Monkey Do” 

As Tim Kasser describes, “When parents primarily express their love through things, children receive the message that love means things.” So we must first model healthier expressions of love. But we can also focus on prioritizing meaningful gifts. For example:

Model meaningful gift giving. When our children, for example, see us giving Grandma a coupon that says “Good for One Day Volunteering for Your Favorite Organization,” they’ll note that not only are we aware of the cause that means the most to Grandma, but we’re willing to give her our most precious commodity: time.

Make family GiveLists. In lieu of making wish lists for Santa, sit down as a family and make lists of gifts you can give to others. So, for example, my daughter’s GiveList one year included the following gifts: “Clean my room without being asked,” ”Read to my little sister,” ”When I see somebody at recess by themselves, I will play with them.”

If you want to test this idea out beyond your immediate family, follow the lead of the Mickelson’s and create a GiveList on SoKind Registry filled with the meaningful gifts that you are most excited to give. You share your GiveList with your loved ones, who then have the fun of choosing the perfect gift for themselves. 

See a sample Holiday Family GiveList.

For hundreds of meaningful gift ideas, download our More Fun, Less Stuff Gift Catalog
There’s an entire section devoted to gifts that kids can give. 

You might also decide on a certain number of gifts that feels right for your family. Some families embrace the "four gift rule" (want, need, wear, read) as a way to rein in material gifts while still including some presents in their celebration.

4.  Make volunteering a holiday ritual

We all have good intentions. We mean to drop off cookies for our elderly neighbor who lives alone, and we talk about caroling at the local senior center. But then all those intentions get lost in the crush of holiday concerts, teacher gifts, work parties, and more. Before you know it, another holiday season has passed, and you swear to do better next year.

But did you know that people who volunteer feel like they have more hours in their day? A study from the Wharton Business School found that when people volunteered—carving out even a small amount of time in their day to help someone else—they experienced feelings of efficiency and competence. These feelings gave people the sense that they could do quite a bit with their limited time. 

In other words, when you give time, you feel like you have more time. So this holiday season, consider taking on a fun holiday service project with your family.

For a list of holiday family service ideas as well as advice for how to incorporate volunteering into your holiday schedule, read Helping Your Kids Give Back: 11 Fun Holiday Service Ideas for You and Your Family.

5.  Don’t lose the magic

Some families tell us that they worry about reducing the number of holiday gifts or replacing some of them with gifts of experience because they fear losing that magical moment when the kids see the presents under the tree. But there are other ways to make gift giving a “moment” without resorting to huge piles of gifts.

In my family, the big gift to our kids is usually a trip, sometimes to a local amusement or water park. One time, we got tickets to see Annie on Broadway. To announce these gifts, we create scavenger hunts or codes that the kids have to break in order to figure out the gift. We still get the squeals and the shrieks, but they come as a result of discovering clues and not because of the latest electronic gadget or must-have toy under the tree.

You could also give representative tokens of “experience” gifts. If, for example, your gift is a membership to your local children’s museum, you can give a map of the museum with the listing of current exhibits. Or, if your gift is a day in your closest big city, you can give subway tokens and a guidebook.

6.  Be patient 

If you’re convinced that there’s no way that your kids will get on board with the “more fun, less stuff” philosophy, I want to share a story that our community member, Sheryl Anderson, emailed us. 

Sheryl explained how her two older children embraced their parents’ non-materialistic lifestyle and liked shopping at thrift shops and re-purposing items, but that their youngest daughter found these habits challenging. She wanted certain styles of clothing from the mall and found it embarrassing when her family would stop to rescue a curbside castoff destined for the landfill.

Sheryl and her husband decided to set a budget for their youngest, while still reserving the right to say “no” to wasteful purchases. They spoke consistently about the differences between wants and needs. Most importantly, they accepted the fact that their daughter didn’t have to like their “more fun, less stuff” philosophy. But she did have to abide by certain family rules. 

Fast forward to adulthood, and this daughter is now a volunteer farmhand near Philadelphia. As Sheryl describes, this “holdout daughter” is now exploring simple living and even shops at the local thrift store for her entire wardrobe!

Parenting is so much about playing the long game. And, while it would be great if our kids immediately jumped on board with the idea of a more meaningful, less materialistic holiday, don’t feel discouraged and give up if they don’t. You may not see the results this year or the next, but, in time, you may find your kids are not just on board with the “more fun, less stuff” philosophy, but are its biggest proponents. 

With our Simplify the Holidays resources, you have plenty of tools at your fingertips to deliver smiles to the kids and the whole family this season, without all the stuff.

Edna Rienzi is Director of Programs at New Dream.