Ah, the holidays. The season for time-honored traditions like decorating the tree, lighting the menorah, wrapping gifts ... and wondering whether you have raised the most selfish kid in the world.
Almost every parent has felt this at one time or another, as toddlers and teens obsess over accumulating more and more holiday stuff. Robin Gorman Newman is no different.
"Like any kid, my son loves to receive," says Newman, mom to an 11-year-old in Long Island, N.Y, and founder of the organization Motherhood Later for moms over 35.
"They're all obsessed with getting, especially when they're younger," Gorman says. "If you saw my basement, you would know what I'm talking about."
Which is why Newman embarked on a campaign to shift her son's mindset from getting to giving. First on the agenda: Baking brownies to bring to the local firehouse, and to families of sick kids staying at the local Ronald McDonald House.
For parents who are trying to encourage giving instead of getting, it can often feel like shouting into the wind, especially at this time of year. American adults are planning to splurge an average of $861 on gifts this holiday season, according to a new survey by American Research Group.
That's up 8% in a single year, surpassing 2007 numbers for the first time since the recession hit. As a result, little Johnny and Janie can expect to rip the wrapping paper off more boxes over Christmas or Hanukkah.
But don't despair. There may be hope for turning kids into givers.
According to data from Allowance Manager, a service that helps parents automate allowance payments and track their kids' spending, many children are setting aside a surprisingly healthy amount for gift-giving.
Roughly 9% of allowances are allocated for gift purchases, a figure that spikes in November and December. And that does not even include charitable donations, which account for an additional 6% of allowance use.
The key question: How do you trigger that mental shift, to get kids thinking of others rather than just themselves?
Have Them Use Some of Their Own Money
Obviously, young children are not going to have a lot of financial resources to tap. But even if it involves very small amounts, have them use some of those resources for gifting.
It drills in the critical personal-finance habit of setting up different buckets for different purposes, one of which should be devoted to others.
"Handling money is best learned through first-hand experience," says Dan Meader, CEO and co-founder of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.-based Allowance Manager, which has over 200,000 users. "So we think it's important that kids get the chance to use some of their own money for gifts, instead of just using their parents' money."
Enforce Artificial Limits
Since we're dealing with modest sums like allowances, you don't want kids spending everything they have on holidays gifts, or feeling inadequate for not being able to purchase very much.
One elegant solution: Set a hard cap on how much can be spent, advises Ron Lieber, the "Your Money" columnist at the New York Times and author of the upcoming book The Opposite of Spoiled.
"See how may things you can buy for under $20, or figure out the most fun you can create for under $20," he says. "If you put a cap on it that way, kids can be generous in spirit, without spending every cent they have."
Set Up a Matching Program
To maximize your kids' giving, consider what many charities do to supercharge donations: Create a matching program.
If your child saves $5 for family gifts, match it dollar-for-dollar, suggests Lieber. Then take it up a notch: If they save $10, contribute $1.50 for every dollar. If they reach $20, match each dollar with $2 of your own.
"That way it ratchets up, so the more generous they're willing to be with their own funds, they will have exponentially more impact," Lieber says.
Encourage Non-Monetary Gifting
There's no rule that says more spending equals more thoughtfulness, despite what all those TV commercials might suggest. As every parent knows, some of the best gifts don't come with any price tag at all.
But it may require some creativity. One idea from Lieber: A 'coupon book' of handwritten gift certificates that family members can give each other. "A dad might give a coupon to drop whatever he's doing and play a game, or to ditch work once in the next 12 months and do whatever the kid wants to do," he says.
"Things like that don't cost anything, and are often incredibly memorable."
Indeed, when Robin Gorman Newman looks around her house, her most cherished gift from her son wasn't bought in a store at all. It's an acrostic of the word 'Mommy,' with each letter standing for its own phrase such as "M is for Making Me Smile."
"It doesn't get any better than that," Newman says. "That's worth a million bucks right there."