Parenting coach Meghan Leahy on managing a child’s holiday gift expectations


How do we manage kids’ oversize expectations thsi time of year? (TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

We all want our kids to think Christmas is magical. So we spend hours decorating, baking, inventing mischief for the Elf on the Shelf and watching “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” over and over again. We also play up the Santa myth until, one day, it comes back to haunt us.

Our little darlings sweetly ask for everything but the moon, convinced that Santa is, you know, Santa. Then we feel like Dr. Frankenstein, creators of miniature monsters, and wonder how we let things spin out of control.

“As parents, obviously we would love to make our kids’ dreams come true,” said Meghan Leahy, a parenting coach in the District. “There’s always that mismatch of expectations and what the family can do.”

I realized we had a problem on our hands when I told my daughter that just because she asked for nearly everything in the American Girl catalog for her birthday, that didn’t mean she would get it because that stuff is expensive. She shrugged and said “That’s okay, I can just ask Santa. Santa can bring anything.”

Mom fail. Or not?

It’s normal for kids to have unrealistic expectations, Leahy said. One colleague’s 6-year-old, for example, is asking Santa for a baseball field — white lines and all — in his front yard. Go for it, kid. Dream big.

The problem is that parents often feel guilty for failing to meet those expectations, so they go overboard — and miss an opportunity to teach their children how to handle disappointment, a skill that they will need as they get older.

“It seems to reflect parenting at its larger core,” Leahy said. “Kids don’t just play soccer, they play soccer, tuba and guitar. There’s this need in us to supply it all. That is actually a really inaccurate message for life.”

Let your child put whatever he wants on his holiday wish list, Leahy said. But instead of making yourself crazy (or broke) trying to buy it all, focus on choosing a few meaningful items that are within your budget.

They might get upset or express disappointment when they race down the stairs on Christmas morning and find that there is no pony or baseball field or Barbie Dream House under the tree. But that’s okay, Leahy said.

“If your child throws a fit, say Santa had a lot of requests to fill,” she said. “You have to let them experience that disappointment, and don’t call them ungrateful. It’s okay for them to have hope and it’s okay to run into the disappointment of not getting what you want. Just let them move on, because they will.”

To help your child move on, Leahy suggests playing a game with him or having an impromptu family dance party. Kids also rebound quickly if a parent gets down on the floor and shows interest in one of their new toys. If the disappointment persists and your budget allows, Leahy said, consider offering to split the cost of the toy with your child once he has earned enough to pay for half of it.

Just try to keep your child, and yourself, focused on what really matters about the holiday — everyone being together and having fun, Leahy said. They may roll their eyes at you now, but that’s what they will remember when they are adults.

“That message of, ‘You got some of what you wanted but not all,’ that’s essence of life,” Leahy said. “That’s a good life.”

@OnParenting

Mari-Jane Williams edits community news for Local Living.
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