How Many Christmas Presents Should You Buy Your Children?

One of the most celebrated traditions of Christmas is sharing gifts with your loved ones. For that reason, Christmas is one of the holidays most favored by children, who are often treated to several toys and other gifts on the day.

Toy sales in the U.S. soared in 2020, with millions of families kept home by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a February 2021 statement from the Toy Association: "One silver lining of the pandemic is that it has helped families rediscover the joys of spending time together and find value in bringing play into their daily lives."

The association projected that this year families would be "seeking new toys that promote togetherness, as well as inclusive playthings that can be enjoyed by kids of varying abilities and interests," the statement said.

But can these toys and other gifts become dangerous for a child's health?

Can Too Many Gifts Be Damaging for Your Child?

There are different factors to be aware of when it comes to giving your children gifts during the holidays.

While it is possible that lavishing your child with Christmas gifts can become detrimental, it isn't likely to "supersede parenting practices that promote resilience," Dr. David Palmiter, a board certified clinical psychologist, told Newsweek.

Similar to playing video games, spoiling your child is, of course, unhealthy "but not nearly as damning as some might have imagined, especially if other things are going well in the family," Palmiter explained.

The psychologist said the word "spoiled" can be seen as the opposite of the word "disciplined," which in America, "appears to have become conflated with butt-kicking—it isn't," he said.

The etymology of the word "disciplined" is "to teach" and Palmiter believes that a foundational teaching, "when it comes to the bullseye of the discipline dart board," is training your children to do things when they don't feel like it.

"That particular psychological muscle, when well-developed, goes a long way to helping adults to reach their personal and professional goals. At birth, infants are incapable of discipline.

"We hope, as parents, that our child is well capable of it [discipline] by the time they leave home. And, if they are not, they are at high odds to boomerang back home. In this arena, the number of presents a kid receives is unlikely to be a major player," Palmiter explained.

A child holding several boxes of gifts.
A child holding several boxes of gifts near a Christmas tree. Overindulging your kids with gifts could have negative consequences. iStock/Getty Images Plus

How Many Christmas Gifts Should Parents Give Their Kids?

The short answer? There is no prescriptive formula and parents cannot be told what's considered an appropriate amount of Christmas gifts for their own child.

Speaking to Newsweek, David S. DeLugas, the executive director and general counsel of the National Association of Parents (ParentsUSA), said it's up to the parents to decide "the number of gifts, the extravagance (or lack thereof) of the gifts or the appropriateness of their gifts...so long as the gifts do not cause long-term emotional harm or physical harm.

"We certainly hope parents use their specific knowledge of their child or children to avoid hurting their children by gift giving," DeLugas said.

Palmiter said: "I don't believe our science can tell us X number of gifts is adaptive and Y number is problematic," explaining that "one-on-one time with a parent is much more desirable to most young children than the latest and hottest toy or gadget."

The magic of the holidays can be captured without spending significant amounts of money, the psychologist said, and advises against stretching your economic resources for presents.

"When parents do this, I've found, it's in service of trying to create a magical experience for their children. But, executed creativity does this much, much better than spent cash," he said.

Palmiter also noted that overspending on gifts will only result in post holiday stress, as you try to catch up with the debt from the expenses, which leaves you "less available to parent with intention."

Dr. Robin H. Gurwitch, clinical psychologist at Duke University Medical Center and the Center for Child and Family Health, told MarketWatch's Moneyish in 2018 that parents are often driven to over-give due to guilt, "especially if they're worried that they haven't spent enough time around their children this year, or they want to give their children more than they had growing up."

Gurwitch said, however, the holiday season can be "a great time of year to help your kids become grateful children who appreciate what they have, which is one of the best gifts you can give."

A child excited to open a gift.
A child excited to open a Christmas gift. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Whatever the figure, setting a gift limit is important, according to psychotherapist Sean Grover, the author of When Kids Call the Shots: How to Seize Control from Your Darling Bully--and Enjoy Parenting Again.

In a 2015 article for Psychology Today, Grover explained: "Meaningful gifts have more emotional value than a mountain of generic presents. Setting limits on gift giving triggers more thoughtfulness and consideration in children. It also guarantees that everyone experiences an equal amount of giving and receiving."

When it comes to the approximate number of gifts to give, perhaps less is more beneficial for the child, according to a 2018 study by researchers at Ohio's University of Toledo published in the journal Infant Behavior and Development.

The study of 36 children found that "an abundance of toys present reduced quality of toddlers' play," while "fewer toys at once may help toddlers to focus better and play more creatively."

Meghan Brunson, a Phoenix-based mother of told Moneyish, she'd applied the "rule of 4" to Christmas gifts for her four kids. The method, which was reportedly adopted by many parents, entails giving one gift the child wants, one they need, one they can wear and one they can read.

Brunson said at the time: "Less really was more. The kids actually had a more enjoyable holiday than years when we spoiled them."

Jennifer Nevins, a mother in New York who runs Savor.us, a blog/brand about creating memories, told Moneyish she also had to adapt how she gives gifts to her three children over the Hanukkah period. She noted: "There's this sort of expectation that there will be a present every night. But that doesn't mean that every night you're getting the Lego Death Star.

"My kids generally get to choose one bigger gift, and then we supplement with smaller things," she said.

A child receiving a gift.
A child receiving a gift from an adult. It’s important to help kids develop generosity towards others to boost their personal happiness. iStock/Getty Images Plus

The Impact of Overindulging Kids With Gifts

In a 2019 article for Psychology Today, Meri Wallace, a parenting expert and child/family therapist, explained spoiling your child with too many gifts can build an unhealthy expectation for receiving gifts.

With new toys and other items on display everywhere over the holiday period, kids soon "become enthralled with the experience of receiving presents and they want the gifts to keep coming," she wrote.

Grover said overindulging kids could increase destructive behavior, lower the child's self-esteem and also rob them of lasting happiness.

According to the psychotherapist, children who engage in "greedy gift grabbing during holidays" suffer negative social and emotional consequences beyond their childhood.

As adults, such children are more prone to credit card debt, gambling, and compulsive shopping, according to a study from the University of Missouri, Grover explained.

"Lasting self-esteem is rooted in a strong sense of identity—not materialism. Excess does not equal increased self-worth," he said.

According to Grover, children who have fewer material possessions but positive relationships with their parents and peers score higher on self-esteem assessment tests. These kids also have fewer behavior problems and show more resilience in the face of obstacles than those whose parents overindulge them.

He also noted children who only value receiving gifts are "more likely to grow to be egocentric and lack empathy." So it's important to help them develop generosity towards others to foster "a healthy sense of interconnectedness and boosts personal happiness."

A woman and child opening Christmas gifts.
A woman and a child opening gifts around a Christmas tree. iStock/Getty Images Plus

How to Manage Giving Christmas Gifts to Kids

For those with older, school-aged children, Gurwitch said it's important to manage your child's expectations, she told Moneyish.

She advised sitting down and having a chat with your kid, saying "Hey, let's talk about Christmas or Hanukkah this year."

Phrases like "We can't afford this" should be avoided, as they can make children feel stressed about their financial security. But rather, say something like: "We're going to downsize a bit with presents because we're saving for a vacation" or "We want to make sure we can take care of the things we need all year, " Gurwitch recommended.

Parents can also explain that your family's rules around gifts are different from that of other families.

For younger children who believe in Santa Claus, Gurwitch suggested saying: "Santa checks with parents before he chooses what gifts to bring you, and he picks things based on where we live and what's important to us."

Dr. Lauren Knickerbocker, a child psychologist at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Health, told Moneyish parents should let their kids know that it's "okay to feel disappointed that they didn't get everything they wanted - but to look at all the toys they did get."

She said: "Don't show a big personal reaction if they pout, act like they don't like something, or refuse to say 'thank you.'"

All kids go through this phase but will learn to be more grateful as they get older, the psychologist said.

A family opening gifts together.
A family opening Christmas gifts together. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Which Christmas Gifts Are Best For Kids?

Palmiter said presents that facilitate physical activity can sometimes help "synergize other adaptive parenting agenda."

He advised any gifts that support a shared interest with a parent can also be a great gift, such as starting a baseball card collection together if you and your child both love the sport.

Any "software games that sneak in a learning agenda" would also work well, he added.

Palmiter also warned: "I'd also keep in mind that if a kid's sedentary electronic pleasuring is exceeding two hours a day, that child is likely not hitting their marks in other important areas, such as socializing, physical activity, school work, sharing in family rituals."

Grover advised it's good to aim for gifts that enhance creativity, talents or motor skills, such as musical instruments or a paint set.

"Children love to discover new talents. It strengthens their self-esteem and confidence. They also learn that they don't need excessive belongings to feel good about themselves," Grover said.

Knickerbocker told Moneyish, parents should ask kids what they want off the top of their head, rather than having them choose an item from a catalog.

She said at the time: "Instead of having the toy catalog put ideas into his head, we get these fantastic requests like 'an alligator that talks to me' that are much more creative."

The psychologist also advised parents to ask their child why they want a particular item—do they need a tablet to do their homework? Or do they just want it because it's an iPad?