Parent Holiday Conundrum: How to Walk the Fine Line Between Treating and Spoiling Your Kids

Is it remotely possible to be Santa and a responsible parent at the same time?

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Parents are in a pickle at this time of year, caught in between conflicting impulses: the urge to indulge kids with piles of goodies and the fear of raising entitled brats who get everything they want. Is it remotely possible to be Santa and a responsible parent at the same time?

Moms and dads have obviously ambivalent feelings about the holidays. In a survey conducted last year, the majority of parents said they feel guilty if they don’t buy everything on their kid’s wish lists and yet they also think they’re spoiling their kids.

Despite the fact that most parents acknowledge they spoil their children, especially around the holidays, we do it anyway, largely because the yearning to make a kid’s magical dreams come true—not to the mention the guilt—is overpowering. But why is it that the compulsion to indulge kids seems so much stronger nowadays? Here are a few reasons:

Kids Have More Power in the House
Over the past century, we’ve seen a steady narrowing of the power gap between parents and their children. Parents of every generation have loved their kids, but decade after decade, they’ve moved up the rungs of the typical family hierarchy’s list of needs. In the early 1900s, when many families still had farms and there were plenty of chores to be done, children were a source of economic security. It was assumed that kids had obligations to help the family that fed, housed, and clothed them.

(MORE: Why Holiday Season ‘Self-Gifting’ Is Such a Huge Trend)

The children of Baby Boomers, on the other hand, were viewed as prizes that parents needed to guide, shape, and take responsibility for. Children were encouraged to look out for themselves, rather than focus on serving their families. Today’s parents often feel like it’s their job to make sure their kids’ lives are filled with nonstop happiness and joy. All of which helps explain why kids today have more say in everything from what’s for dinner to where the family vacations—and also, of course, what winds up under the Christmas tree.

More Guilt, More Keeping Up with the Joneses
Elle, a 40-year-old mom, is recently divorced and trying hard to stay on a budget. She knows it’s somewhat ridiculous to buy her 8-year-old daughter a $500 iPad for Christmas, but she’s getting her one anyway. “All her friends have iPads, and I know she feels left out,” she told me. “I don’t think she should have to suffer because of the divorce.”

Elle is not alone in terms of her child asking for expensive electronics for Christmas—nearly half of kids ages 6 to 12 have iPads on their wish lists this year—and in terms of feeling guilted into going along with her child’s desires. Divorce and long hours at work are probably the most common sources of parent guilt, but they’re hardly the only ones. Another mom, named Jenny, told me she felt compelled to purchase an expensive pair of boots for her teenage daughter because she’d just bought herself a new outfit. “I would have felt guilty bringing all that home without getting something for Paige too,” she said.

Many parents, like one dad I spoke to named Dan, double down on guilt by feeling guilty about the guilt-inspired purchases for their kids. Dan recently bought his son a video game as a pick-me-up after a poor sporting performance. “I should have practiced with him more,” he said. “Actually he should be practicing instead of playing video games. I probably shouldn’t be buying him things to make up for this anyway.”

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Today’s parent guilt is heightened because kids are increasingly viewed as showpieces of the family’s values and achievement. If kids aren’t happy, and decked out with the latest fashion and gadgets, many parents feel it reflects badly on the family as a whole. Expectations are high, and the result is that we have an unnecessary guilt epidemic on our hands when we fail to meet these expectations.

Conflict Avoidance
It takes fortitude to stand up to a kid with his heart set on a toy. Today’s time-crunched, multi-tasking parents have less of it, and less time period. And frankly, when you have so little time to spend with your kid, you’re less likely to want to spend that time battling it out about why little Joey doesn’t need yet another set of Legos. Spoiling a kid, on the other hand, provides a brief moment of joy for parent and offspring alike, at least until a child is overly spoiled and being treated is so commonplace that the thrill disappears. Due to that narrower power gap between parents and children, parents care more about the approval of their children than previous generations. In other words, it’s just more difficult to take that stand. In the short run, caving in is much easier, and so we cave.

Psyched-Up Hype
Today’s parents are exposed to mountains of misinformation about the fragile egos of our children. Many moms and dads that I’ve interviewed fear that their kids will be harmed psychologically if they experience frustration, wanting, or don’t have what other kids have.

Speaking as a psychologist myself, I think we’re overdoing the play-at-home version of clinical psychology. These fears are unwarranted. Deep down, most parent instinctively understand that it’s good in the long run for kids to experience frustration, even disappointment. It may come with some tears and a lot of whining, and it can be heartbreaking for parents to see their kids struggle, but these experiences build resiliency, inner strength, and self-control.

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So what can parents do to avoid spoiling their kids too-too much during the holidays? Here are four tips to consider:

Think “Doing” Over Gifts
Many parents justify over-the-top gifts because they think they’ll “create memories” that the family will cherish for decades. But when people tell me their favorite holiday memories, they almost always involve fun traditions, not gifts. Melissa, 20, said that her favorite Christmas memory is the ritual of cooking their family’s traditional Sicilian dishes and visiting her grandmother in her nursing home. Other people mentioned reading the same Christmas book aloud every year, baking and delivering cookies, volunteering, or simply going to the movies.

While some ambitious parents run themselves ragged hunting down every gift on their kid’s list, the truth is that traditions and actions, not things, create more powerful memories.

Slow it Down
Diving into a pile of gifts is massively fun. For a few minutes. Kids will ultimately receive more pleasure from their gifts if they are opened at a slower pace, with time between each present to appreciate that particular gift and express gratitude. When gifts are opened so quickly that a child’s mind can barely process what they are, the kid barely has the opportunity to appreciate the gift at hand and to enjoy the feeling of being treated.

Help Kids Prioritize Their Wish Lists
This may be a little late for this season, but going forward—not just with Christmas, but birthdays and graduations too—spend some time helping your kids to narrow down what it is they want most. Prioritization is a life skill that one will use forever; adults who never master it are bound to blow money on loads of goods that are rarely used or enjoyed. Almost no one gets everything they want in life, and the ability to realize what it is that will make you truly happy is an important psychological skill. It’s closely related to another key development, appreciating what you have rather than pining for what you don’t.

(MORE: Why Santa Claus Is a No-Show at Many Malls This Year)

Be Confident
Kids are acutely aware of their parent’s emotions. If you feel guilty and weak, they know it. They’ll process your guilt through their own limited life experience, assume you feel bad for being stingy, and play off of those feelings to get what they want. Kids can also pick up on confidence. When a parent has noble motives and sticks to her guns without flinching, kids are more likely to buy into the idea that maybe, just maybe, they don’t need the latest iPhone and a new wardrobe every season. Your confidence is their confidence.

Kit Yarrow chairs the psychology department of Golden Gate University and was named as the university’s 2012 Outstanding Scholar for her research in consumer behavior. She is co-author of Gen BuY and is a frequent speaker on topics related to consumer psychology and Generation Y.

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