When family life counselor Kim John Payne published "Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids" in 2009, he was warning us about how our supersize lives were affecting our kids. He was seeing kids who were unable to play by themselves in rooms full of toys, throwing frequent tantrums caused by overscheduling, and being diagnosed with behavioral disorders they didn't have. He knew something needed to change.
"The too much, too soon, too sexy, too young — it's become ubiquitous," he says.
It turns out he was onto something with that "less is more" approach, particularly when it comes to holiday toys. Each year, as minimalism grows in popularity, Payne sees more parents embracing the call for less stuff and more time together.
For a few ideas on how to give children more meaningful gifts this year, we talked to Payne, as well as a lifestyle blogger inspired by simplicity parenting, a mother of seven who recently downsized her life, an author of parenting books and a psychologist who studies gift giving. Here are their suggestions.
Erin Boyle, creator of the site Reading My Tea Leaves and author of the book "Simple Matters," gets more questions about her posts on her gifting strategy for children than almost anything else. She likes to follow the idea of giving just four presents: one gift kids want, one gift to read, one gift to wear and one gift they need. (Substitute a category for "do" if you want to include an experience.)
"We are [our children's] guides," says Boyle, who lives in New York City. "So if we show excitement over chocolate in a stocking, they're not going to look around the room for more things."
She suggests starting a minimalist gifting strategy at a young age — her children are 3 and 10 months — and spreading the word to friends and family.
"Messaging from the beginning is important, having super-frank conversations with family and friends, and being willing to be a little weird. . . . If simplicity is your goal, it's possible." If loved ones don't adhere to your plan, you should still be gracious about all gifts received, she notes.
"Say 'thank you' and then decide over time if it's something you want to keep in your house," she says.
While on a mission trip to Africa last Christmas, Jennifer Pepito and her family of nine decided that they wanted to downsize their lives and devote more resources to traveling. The founder of the Peaceful Press, a company that creates a curriculum for home-school families, Pepito didn't want to buy her kids even more toys that she'd step on or need to pick up.
After deciding to focus on experiences rather than things, she and her husband sold their house in California and bought a smaller fixer-upper. They saved enough money on housing and property taxes to take a trip again for the holidays this year, to Italy for two weeks. On Christmas, she'll have small gifts for the kids: pajamas, used books and travel toys, such as card games and maybe a Kindle or two. But the real gift is seeing the world together. Her Christmas budget includes enough room for "gelato, bread, pizza, more bread, wine and museum entrance fees," she says.
And experience gifts don't have to be big, costly trips. Karen Pine, a professor at the University of Hertfordshire in Britain who studies the psychology of gift giving, says that "more than anything, kids love attention from their parents and time together."
Pool the money spent on gifts and put it toward an experience that everyone can enjoy. Try a day hike with dad or a weekend with mom doing an activity the child chooses. Also consider flipping the giving, encouraging kids to give parents experiences, such as an outing or a morning of gardening together.
Try creating a family ritual around giving. Jenn Mann, author of "The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids," and her family celebrate Hanukkah. Their first-night tradition is that each of her children gets three pieces of paper with a description of a charity she thinks they might like. They get to choose which one they want to give to.
"It's good to get kids thinking outside of their own wants and needs, especially during the holidays," she says. "These kinds of rituals bring families closer together and send really positive messages to kids."
For Christmas, this could be done with a wrapped box for older kids with a few charities inside for them to choose from. If you want to give a charitable gift to others, make sure it's a cause the recipient cares about. To learn more about a charity you are considering supporting, check out Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org).
"Give them something that they can pour their creativity into," Payne says. "A toy that is fairly simple, that doesn't do very much, that is in itself fairly plain."
He likes to give kids a box of five big pieces of dyed muslin cloth, perhaps including one that is shiny and another that is dark. Kids turn these into houses, princess gowns, "all manner of things . . . that provide hours of play," he says. "The plainer the toy, the simpler the toy, the more creative the play and then the more collaborative the play."
It's an idea that Payne's simplicity parenting coaches have seen work well around the world. For older kids, Payne suggests a guitar, basketball backboard, or even the building materials and tools to make a bike or skateboard ramp.
It's normal for kids in other countries to have tool kits to play and work with, or their own workshop areas. Gifts such as these have more longevity than the latest "it" toy or gadget and can inspire confidence and nurture talent in children.