By Alaina Trivax, WCI Columnist
This past holiday season was the first year that my 3 ½-year-old son really understood the idea of Santa. It was so, so special. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, he kept telling me, “Mommy, I love Santa” and “Santa is coming to our house soon!” My younger son is almost 2, and even he was so excited to see our elf and his latest shenanigans each morning.
Brandon, my husband, is an early-career PM&R physician, and I work as a middle school teacher. Our kids are little, so we’ve only been in this parenting game for a few years. With each birthday and holiday, though, we find ourselves thinking about how to navigate gift-gifting with our kids while also fostering in them a sense of appreciation for just how fortunate they are.
Last year, for our older son’s birthday, we somehow found ourselves buying him an iPad as a gift. We were upgrading my cell phone, and it was a good deal to add an iPad to the package. If you’ve read many of my other columns, you’re probably shocked that I could be suckered into this kind of impulse buy. Frankly, it was more of an “iPad for Mommy to hand the toddler so she can nurse the baby while we’re out and about,” but that’s not exactly a distinction he can make. Even though we try to be conscientious about the gifts we give our kids, we still ended up with a preschooler who has his own iPad.
What a life he lives! As both of our boys grow, we hope to help them develop a sense of appreciation for all that they have and a sense of gratitude for how fortunate they are. We’ve approached this in a few simple ways so far and especially kept this goal in mind over the recent Christmas season.
How to Teach Gratitude to Your Kids
#1 Prioritize Memories and Experiences
We are fortunate to have the ability to provide our kids with everything they need. The basics, like food and shelter, are covered, and we don’t ever take that for granted. Beyond that, our kiddos live a really good life. They’ve got learning toys and fun toys—the magnetic tiles, the play kitchen, the train set. All of it. Just a few years ago, we even had a baby toy subscription service delivering developmentally appropriate toys every few months. It was incredible—the toys are long-lasting and interesting—and our kids still play with quite a few of the toys from those kits (even though something about the concept of a “toy subscription” might not align with our general efforts to minimize frivolous spending!).
When birthdays and holidays come around, we find ourselves torn. There’s always a new kid toy out there, and I’m sure our boys would play with it. But do they need more stuff? For these gift-giving occasions, we are trying to prioritize things that will grow with our kids and build memories. As a birthday gift last year, we got our 3-year-old a $40 excavator toy for the giant sandbox at his grandma’s house; he and his brother will have hours of fun on this over the years.
For Christmas, we leaned on a cute rhyme I learned from some mom friends, and we gave the boys something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read. Instead of going all-in on piles of holiday gifts, we spent the money on a family trip to Mexico in February. We’re excited to start traveling with our boys, and we know those memories will be more treasured than a new Hot Wheels set.
Our kids are lucky to have a big extended family that’s looking forward to spoiling them with gifts, too. The aunts, uncles, and grandparents enjoy watching our boys open presents and play, and we love that for everyone. So, not to worry—they’ll have plenty of new toys! And ultimately, we want our kids to know that it’s not about the cost or the size of a gift. They are loved and well cared for, and that’s what matters.
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#2 Saving for Their Futures
Any cash our kids receive for Christmas goes straight to their 529 accounts. They are fortunate to be given money from some extended family members and grandparents. Honestly, it’s these holiday contributions that have largely funded their college savings accounts so far, as we’re prioritizing paying down Brandon’s med school loans before we start aggressively saving for our kids’ educations.
For Christmas in 2023, we did match what we spent on their gifts as a 529 contribution—this added a few hundred dollars to each of their accounts. This kind of “doubles” their Christmas present, but I set up the holiday budget with that plan in mind.
We wrapped this up as a little gift certificate along with a book for each of them. Our boys are so young, and we haven’t really talked with them about their college savings accounts. We just framed it as “money for you to use for learning when you’re older.” We want to start building the tradition of 529 contributions as gifts, and this was an age-appropriate way to start those conversations. Given that so much of the money is coming from extended family right now, we especially want them to understand and appreciate the gift they’ve been given—at least, as much as possible at their age.
#3 Participate in Giving to Others
As our kids grow and more clearly express their desires, we’re trying to help them understand that just because they want something does not mean they need it or that they’ll get it. Giving to others is one way we hope to help them develop some appreciation for all that they do have.
We usually participate in a holiday adopt-a-family initiative, but in recent years, we’ve been so busy with two little ones that I’ve looked for programs with direct delivery options and then just sent the items straight to the organization coordinating the gift drive. My kids were too young to participate in previous years, but even so, they had no idea about our family’s contributions.
Our kids’ schools participate in a holiday gift drive, collecting toys, winter gear, and more on behalf of a local community organization, and this year, the boys were just old enough to pick out gifts to donate. They each selected toys that they would love to get as gifts—Lego sets and toy cars—and that’s perfect. It was an easy and meaningful way for two little kids to participate in giving to others.
Last summer, we followed up my older son’s birthday by supporting a local nonprofit agency that distributes “birthday parties in a bag” to local foster families. These kits include themed party supplies and ingredients for a birthday cake, so we took a trip to Target and Party City to put together some kits to donate. Each of the boys chose a theme for their bag—Paw Patrol and “sports.” They picked out plates and napkins to match and filled the bag with decorations and party favors. Our younger son’s birthday is a couple months away, and I plan to make this a tradition.
At their ages, the boys didn’t completely understand the process of a holiday toy drive or the birthday bag donations. Both gave us plenty of opportunities to talk about our family’s values, and they’ll understand more as they grow. In coming years, we can involve them in charitable donation conversations and direct service, but for now, these were a good way to start the habit of giving to others.
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As They Grow
These conversations and goals will continue to evolve as our kids grow. Neither Brandon nor I grew up with much intentional instruction about money. In my case, I knew that money was limited. I learned to consider the price and value of an item before purchasing it—and that you should almost always go with the cheapest option.
Brandon grew up with little concern about scarcity and cost but also with little education about managing money or paying off debt. He’s wondered before if he would have gone to medical school—and taken out all those student loans—if he had received more financial education as a kid, or if he’d have chosen a lower-paying career with an easier entry point.
We hope to raise our kids to appreciate the value of money and to understand all that they can do for themselves and others with it. Ultimately, we’re just out here doing our best to raise kids who will be kind to others and grateful for what they have.
How did you teach your kids about money and about how to be grateful for what they have? Were you taught the same things when you were a kid? How did those conversations (or lack thereof) impact you? Comment below!