One child wants a whole bunch of gifts. The other doesn't want much. Are you obligated to spend equally?
Parent advice (from our panel of staff contributors)
As the eldest of six kids, I assure you that it is critically important to give equally to all kids. Period. They will remember any slights and talk about them to their significant others and/or therapists for years. Get out your calculators, Mom and Dad, and make sure you exercise stringent equality.
— Ellen Warren
If a child asks for few gifts or is less than enthusiastic about presents, that could be a good thing and should be respected. The tricky part is to talk to each child over the weeks leading up to Christmas and see if you can figure out what they really want — quantity, quality, special toys or activities, etc. — and then weigh that with what you think they deserve, what they'll appreciate most and what you can afford.
As long as you can be reasonably sure that there won't be wailing and gnashing of teeth with regret over not getting an equal load, it's OK to be unequal.
— Michael Zajakowski
Gift-giving, ideally, tells kids we love them and want to bring joy to their lives by bestowing upon them the items their little hearts so desperately desire. Even if those items are plastic and obnoxious and prone to break in less than a week.
But gift-giving tells kids a lot of other things too: namely, how we think about fairness, value and gratitude. Two kids wanting dramatically different piles of loot provide a perfect opportunity to explore some of these notions and how they play out in your particular family.
"We often spend our kids' whole lives teaching them that fair means equal," says Betsy Brown Braun, author of "You're Not the Boss of Me: Brat-Proofing Your Four- to Twelve-Year-Old Child" (HarperCollins). "Fair means giving your child what he needs at the time he needs it. When his foot is too big, he gets new tennis shoes. If we automatically buy new shoes for the other child, we set them up to think everything is always going to be equal."
Which it's not, of course. In your home or the outside world.
"We also set our kids up to measure things based on value and we don't do a very good job teaching them what value is," says Brown Braun. "Maybe I've crocheted one child a blanket that took me nine months and I bought the other child a pair of new shoes that he wanted. I may have put 7,000 hours into that blanket, but he thinks the shoes are a bigger gift because they cost more. We don't often teach kids to value how much effort and thought goes into gifts."
So here's what you do: "For the child who doesn't want a lot, I wouldn't work so hard to make sure it's all equal," she says. "I'd make sure he gets something that brings a smile to his face. And get creative. Maybe it's a weekend camp-out with mom. Something that he didn't necessarily ask for but you know he'll really like.
"For the kid who asks for a lot, you say, 'Let's get that list out and prioritize the things you really want and which you don't want so much. Because you're going to get a few of these things, but you're not going to get 20.'"
If the dollar amount spent on each child doesn't add up exactly, she says, don't sweat it.
"You're just feeding the monster and the monster is the person who goes through life always measuring and always looking for everything to be equal," says Brown Braun. "Fair is giving where it's needed. And you set your kids up to recognize that."
Got a solution?
School's out for a couple weeks. Do the kids need an equal break from practicing instruments, dance steps, language and other extracurriculars? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find "The Parent 'Hood" page on Facebook, where you can post your parenting questions and offer tips and solutions for others to try.
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