Last year, my 7-year-old ripped open his last present under the tree, looked around at all the fun and chaos, and said, “Wait, was that the last one?” Needless to say, that’s definitely not the vibe I’m looking for this year.
As a mom of four sons under seven, walking the line of getting “enough” gifts, while maintaining a reasonable budget and making everyone happy, seems like a completely impossible task. I don’t want massive piles of gifts that break the bank and give my kids unrealistic expectations of, well, reality. But I hate the idea of going too minimalistic and disappointing my kids, too. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I know how fortunate I am to be in this situation: debating how many presents vs. whether my kids will have any.
So, as we approach another holiday shopping season, I found myself asking others, and the experts — how many gifts “should” a kid get for Christmas?
Of course the answer will vary widely, based on family size and budget constraints, traditions and expectations. It also varies with age, according to Lisa Phillips, MSW, LMSW Parent Educator at The Parenting Center at Children's Hospital New Orleans. Breaking down just how many gifts a child can developmentally appreciate and process gave me some real guidelines to consider this year, and helped me realize that in spite of my kids’ dismay, it might not be the same number for all age groups (*gasp*). Here’s what she, and purposeful play expert and educator, and mom of four Alanna Gallo, recommends for each age group.
But first, we’ll stipulate that kids don’t “need” any of this to grow into happy, well-adjusted adults, and if your resources are tight this year, whatever you can do is just fine.
2-4 year olds
My youngest kids, who fall in this age group, would undoubtedly be happy with a dollar store doll and a large roll of wrapping paper to trash my house with. Yet I already have multiple ideas for them brewing, as they are coming up on prime time “toy” loving age, which I need to keep in check.
“Young children naturally have fairly short attention spans, and while we may think the way to encourage independent play is to have lots of toys always available, that doesn't often work. Caregivers may notice that having a lot of toys may mean that a child actually plays less independently,” Phillips says. She points to research that has fueled minimalists’ credos for years, proving that young kids with access to fewer toys played longer and more creatively than those with too many available.
Gallo adds kids in this age group aren’t really counting presents, so not to stress too much about that. So, depending on finances and space available, she says just a few more meaningful presents, such as a really nice set of wood blocks they’ll use from now till teenhood is totally reasonable. She also recommends sensory toys, active products with open-ended play options like stepping stones are also high-engagement choices.
5-7 year olds
As kids move into this phase, which is often the heart of childhood Christmas — where Santa is still so real and Christmas morning warrants a three month countdown — the balance is particularly tough. Gallo says that around 6-10 presents in this age group might be ideal, but with some caveats — move out the same amount that is coming in, donating or selling those they don’t use anymore to prevent clutter.
Also, you can consider wrapping parts of gifts, such as a five-pack of books, separately, so they have more to open without spending too much, she adds. It’s also an ideal age to reach out to family members to prevent the plastic jungle from coming in, and instead ask if they’d consider contributing to experiences such as zoo or amusement park memberships that this age group would love all year, Phillips recommends. “Parents can always try to discuss this issue with other family members, who may or may not be receptive,” she says.
8-12 year olds
Though they might be acting like preteens, I’m leaning into holding my newly appointed 8-year-old close this Christmas, teaching all the lessons of gratitude even as big ticket items start landing on his list. “This age group is such a crucial period of development that a lot of parents maybe don’t recognize… a lot of kids start asking for a phone or a tablet… it’s one of those things I feel very strongly about not doing that, because childhood is so fleeting and we’re losing so much of it already,” Gallo says.
Instead, get your child sports addict tickets to their favorite team, and a couple of books related to the game. If live events aren’t in the budget, plan a trip to the sports museum and wrap the tickets, she recommends, pushing for activities the family can enjoy with the child, rather than a phone which might further isolate them. “It’s so ridiculously important for the child in that stage to stay connected to family,” says Gallo. In this and the next stage, presents may be fewer but more expensive or meaningful, with not as many toys in the mix.
13+ year olds
At this age, the Santa magic has likely passed, and it’s okay to have real-talk with teens asking for lots of budget-breaking items, explaining that this is what we typically spend on Christmas, even if it’s not fulfilling every last dream on their wish list. At Gallo’s house, older kids have around six to ten presents if they aren’t ridiculously expensive things, and potentially including anticipated gifts from relatives. But don’t be afraid to talk to them about contributing to larger gifts with your typically budgeted Christmas gifting amount. For example, if you typically spend $200 on them, but they want a laptop, you can contribute the amount you can towards that and they can save, or have other relatives pitch in for a group present that’s “more coordinated,” Gallo recommends.
Try a rule, rather than a number
If a number seems not in the spirit of the season, try a family rule that helps kids understand what Christmas will be like. “There's no clear cut answer to this question [of how many gifts], but many parents worry about overindulgence during the holidays,” Phillips says. “One approach I noticed on social media in the last few years is to encourage children to expect one present from each of the four categories: ‘Something you want, something you need, something you wear, something you read.’ While not every family will want to follow a specific guideline such as this one, others may find communicating expectations to children is helpful to curbing a sense of entitlement.
There are other variations, such as the “7 gift rule” which includes: something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read, something to do, something for me, something for the family. Making up your own gift giving tradition in a way that gets everyone involved might lead to more buy in too.
With four kids, this year I’m hoping to involve each of them in giving someone to each of their brothers, in addition to one to two Santa presents while they still believe. In this way, I’m hoping the focus turns a bit more towards giving than it has been in the past, and away from the “Wait, that’s it!” entitled attitude. We’ll see.
Alexandra Frost is a Cincinnati-based freelance journalist, content marketing writer, copywriter, and editor focusing on health and wellness, parenting, real estate, business, education, and lifestyle. Away from the keyboard, Alex is also mom to her four sons under age 7, who keep things chaotic, fun, and interesting. For over a decade she has been helping publications and companies connect with readers and bring high-quality information and research to them in a relatable voice. She has been published in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Glamour, Shape, Today's Parent, Reader's Digest, Parents, Women's Health, and Insider.
Alex has a Master of Arts in Teaching, and a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communications/Journalism, both from Miami University. She has also taught high school for 10 years, specializing in media education.