For the last several holiday seasons, the Lewis family looked forward to their annual trip to see relatives in Utah. But that’s not happening this year. “My mom is very afraid of the virus, so she asked us not to come visit, which is totally understandable,” says Ashley Lewis, whose kids are 7 and 10.
Instead, the family will stay home and try to add some extra holiday activities. As for gifts?
“If anything we’ll probably get more gifts because we’re not getting to do any kind of fun traveling,” she says.
The Lewis’s plans mirror what many families are expecting this year. Retail experts predict far less spending on travel, which means families will have more money to spend on physical gifts. And industry insiders such as Rod Sides, U.S. retail lead at Deloitte, and Natalie Kotlyar, a partner at BDO USA (both consulting firms that track holiday trends), predict spending will be slightly down overall because of the lagging economy but believe that consumers will be buying plenty of toys, technology, board games, puzzles, and bikes—all things to use while stuck at home.
However, that increased focus on physical gifts might leave parents wondering how to approach a holiday season in a way that maximizes fun but also teaches kids positive lessons about giving and receiving gifts. Luckily, experts such as child psychologist Lisa Damour say some of the pandemic-inspired “benefits”—extra time spent at home and a renewed emphasis on family—offer parents a chance to approach things differently and develop some important skills.
“There are reset aspects of the pandemic that can pull us back from doing things a certain way because we’ve always done them that way,” says Damour, who also cohosts the podcast Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting. “There can be a hazard of feeling like every year has to be bigger and better than the one before, especially as kids age, so if parents feel there’s a healthy reset to have, they should not squander it.”
Mental health benefits of gift-giving
A child’s process for giving gifts can sometimes be a bit, well, selfish. (“I love basketball, so obviously Grandma will love a team jersey.”) But because the pandemic has likely made kids more reflective about what’s important—grandpa’s health, spending time with a best pal—parents can help them reset their process to focus on what’s important for the receiver, not the giver.
And that’s important for children’s development, says Deborah Pontillo, a pediatric psychologist and director at San Diego Kids First / San Diego Therapy First.
“It develops a very crucial social skill called perspective taking,” she says. “It’s about learning about the recipient, that what Mom likes is different from Dad, and it helps kids establish connections by learning about peoples’ perspectives and preferences.”
For example, Pontillo says that teaching kids to think about what an individual might like—that Dad likes cookies but Mom doesn’t, or that Grandma can’t have flowers because she’s allergic—helps them understand other people’s perspectives. And that, she adds, can help kids become more thoughtful people.
Thinking through gifts can also result in new and creative craft projects. “Try to connect the dots,” Pontillo says. “Connect the interests of the child and help them attune to the interests and preferences of the people they’re giving to. If Grandma likes flowers and your child is an artist, maybe she’d like a portrait of flowers.”
Gift-giving also helps children practice and build empathy. “Children are instinctively empathic,” Damour says. “We should build on those instincts by asking them to imagine what would make another person happy.” As a result, she adds, children can take pleasure in being generous and thinking about other people.
Giving in a less materialistic way
The pandemic can also help parents reset a child’s expectations for buying or receiving expensive gifts. Even if your family isn’t hurting financially, this can be a good time to remind children that many are, and that it’s important to focus on the process of thoughtful gift-giving rather than material things.
“We don’t want to be suggesting happiness rests on material possessions,” Damour says.
In fact, multiple studies have found that putting too much emphasis on material goods in childhood creates less happy adults. A 2015 study in the Journal of Consumer Research showed children raised with a focus on materialism believed that owning expensive things meant they were more successful and attractive. And a 2017 paper in the Journal of Consumer Psychology suggested that for kids, building their identity based off possessing tangible goods can result in a less stable identity and a less confident kid overall.
Involving kids in the gift-giving process can be a great way to model quality and thoughtfulness over quantity or cost, Damour says. That might mean helping your kids look online and pick out a gift to buy for a grandparent but not place more value on items that are expensive.
“I don’t want to suggest it’s not OK to enjoy nice things,” she adds. “So [parents] might say, ‘Nice things are nice, but when it comes down to it, the most important thing in your happiness will always be your relationships.’”
Encouraging kids to make thoughtful gifts for friends and family this year can help exercise those young perspective-taking muscles as well as show them how to focus on less materialistic gifts. That, Pontillo adds, can result in new memories and traditions.
“Crafts you can do at home that lend themselves to gifts can create a whole new set of memories for kids that are positive,” she says.
For instance, Lewis is having her son Xavier—a skilled artist—give pictures he’s drawn as gifts. Kids can also try out pandemic-friendly ideas that don’t require going to the post office: recording a song, dance, play, poem, or concert and sending it to family and friends. (Get more ideas for DIY gifts at Nat Geo Kids.)
“I’ve asked my kids to record videos of them performing piano and dancing to send to my mom,” Lewis says. Here are a few other ideas for personalized and crafty gifts to try at home:
• Beaded napkin rings using firm wire and colorful beads
• Watercolor-painted bookmarks
• A pen holder made from Legos
• Small bowls made from modeling clay
• A wrist rest for a keyboard made from freezer bags stuffed with rice and wrapped in fabric
• Felt cozies
• Scarves decorated with fabric paint
• Painted picture frames