Getting Through Holiday Gift Hell
These simple steps can help you tame the holiday gimmes and put meaning back into the season for you and your children
By Karen Hube

(MONEY Magazine) – It happens every year. Despite parents' best intentions to downplay the commercial aspects of the holidays and infuse celebrations with the true spirit of the season, the festivities deteriorate into a big, fat gimme-fest. Piles of presents. More presents. Children tearing through wrapping as if possessed. A tantrum, a meltdown. A depleted bank account. Credit cards at their limit. No peace on earth in this household.

Of course, you can always blame marketers, who will spend an estimated $5 billion this season enticing children to beg for their products. But parents have to take some responsibility too. "The first question adults ask kids is, What do you want this year?" points out Betsy Taylor, president of the Center for a New American Dream. "That reinforces the message that the holidays are mostly about presents."

So what can you do? "Don't worry about your kids wanting things—that's natural," says psychotherapist Eileen Gallo, who is a co-author of Silver Spoon Kids: How Successful Parents Raise Responsible Children (McGraw-Hill). "But balance their materialism by teaching them strong values and making them aware that the world doesn't revolve around them."

Whichever holiday you celebrate, here's how to do just that.

Rein in the excess The average American child gets 70 new toys a year, most of them during the holiday season. No doubt, at least 65 of them will lose their appeal within nanoseconds of being opened, quietly relegated to a corner to gather dust.

Pledge that this year will be different. Start by having your child create a holiday wish list, ranking the items from most to least important—an early lesson in setting financial priorities. Then explain that you'll try your best to see that he gets what he wants most, but some of the rest may have to wait.

Aim to make the gifts you do get more meaningful, rather than just buying the season's hottest toys. "The best ideas encourage your child's interests and create opportunities for you to be together," Taylor says. If your kid is an animal lover, you might put together binoculars and a bird guide as a kit. If she's a budding athlete, buy her a tennis racket and balls so you can hit the courts together. Encourage relatives to find gifts that can be enjoyed year round too, such as horseback riding or karate lessons, music classes or a magazine subscription. Tim Kasser, author of The High Price of Materialism (MIT Press), says the most memorable gifts exchanged in his family are coupons for favors. "We've given our kids you-can-skip-your-vegetables coupons and play-with-me-now coupons," Kasser says. They have given him stop-bickering and massage coupons—a win-win for all.

Create compelling alternatives You can further counterbalance the commercial aspects of the season by introducing fun holiday rituals that your kids will look forward to each year. The idea is to make your celebration less about stuff and more about the traditions you share as a family. "Rituals give kids a sense of security in a fast-moving, unpredictable world, as well as memories they will cherish a lifetime," Taylor says.

So encourage your kids to entertain the grown-ups at your annual family gathering with a holiday play or puppet show. Consider hosting a caroling party for friends and neighbors and making it an annual event. Reserve a day to bake cookies, decorate gingerbread houses or make latkes with your children, as seasonal music blasts in the background. Make an event of cutting down and decorating a Christmas tree.

If your schedule gets jammed with holiday parties and visits from extended family and friends, arrange one evening for a quiet celebration with just you, your spouse and your kids, and choose an activity you'll all enjoy: Look over old family photographs, play charades, sing carols, watch holiday videos from years past or make an event of cooking a festive meal together.

Nurture charitable impulses Show your children what the phrase "good will toward men" means by involving them in charitable activities. Besides helping kids appreciate how fortunate they are, participating in good works boosts their self-esteem as they realize they can help change someone else's life for the better.

The younger your child is, the more simple and direct the charitable action should be, because little kids cannot understand abstract concepts. Notes Gallo: "Writing a check or sending a toy to a child in need is generous, but going to a shelter with your child to deliver that toy will have a much bigger impact."

So let your youngster accompany you when you donate that frozen turkey to the local food pantry for Thanksgiving and ask him or her to help you pick out and wrap presents for your neighborhood toy drive. Make Christmas cards or ornaments together and deliver them to older folks at a nearby nursing home. Help your kids sift through their toys to find those they no longer use, box them up and make a family outing to the Salvation Army—a way to do good and reduce household clutter at the same time.

Emphasize the joy of giving You can't blame kids, whose focus on "me, me, me" is developmentally appropriate, for failing to know instinctively that it is better to give than to receive. The holidays are the perfect time to introduce them to the concept.

Ask your kids to create a list of people they want to give presents to, then help them brainstorm gift ideas based on each recipient's interests. If Aunt Susie loves hard candy, take your child to the store and let him fill a bag. If Grandpa enjoys classical music, let your child choose between two CDs by listening to a sample of each at a music store. Encourage younger kids to make their own gift—say, a painted Popsicle-stick frame, a beaded necklace or a family photo album made out of colored construction paper.

Whether the gift is homemade or store-bought, the end result is the same. "This is a chance for kids to learn that the holidays are not all about them," says Nancy Twigg, author of Celebrate Simply. "Giving is fun too."