Posted by: Deborah Drezon Carroll | December 27, 2009

Spoiled Kids or Good Kids?

Buying gifts for kids is a tough job for parents. I know it was for me. Our kids loved getting presents. I mean, who doesn’t love getting presents? They were good kids, too, because they loved any present — big or small it didn’t really matter. They just loved opening gifts, even if the gift was socks. (Okay, they had to be cute socks with hearts or puppies or something but, still, the present could be socks and it was still appreciated.) The sheer delight on their faces when opening gifts was the most satisfying of parental rewards. Truth be told, I still love it. When the Carroll girls open gifts, all the world smiles. They’re polite, they’re genuinely grateful, and they’re gracious. It’s all good.

And, therein lies the problem. It is hard to draw the line between giving gifts and spoiling kids. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the joy of giving, especially this season, that we lose sight of when we’re giving too much. I heard this week of a present-opening session which involved two little girls and way too many gifts. What happens, then, is that no one gift has any meaning. The gift-giver is also unimportant. The whole event devolves into a frenzy of furious unwrapping and moving on to the next conquest without even noticing what’s in the box or the genuine feeling behind the gift.

It’s challenging for parents and grandparents to decide which gifts to give kids, and how many. Our girls were all close in age and liked a lot of the same things when they were little. What some parents do is to make sure each child gets the same gift so that no rivalry erupts. We chose to handle it a bit differently. What made sense to us was to give the girls things they could share. If one got “Dixie’s Diner,” we knew they’d all play together with it so there was no need to get three of those. The other daughters could get the sing-along guitar with microphone and the third could get the “Guess Who” game and our theory was that they’d share their toys and everyone would be happy.

I understand the theory that some parents have to stave off the fighting by making sure the gifts are nothing to fight about but I think there’s a lost opportunity there to teach the kids that sharing usually works pretty well and that you don’t always have to have exactly the same things your siblings have. Kids don’t really need to get a ton of presents.

It’s hard, though, because it’s so much fun to give to your kids. It feels great. It’s like an addiction! But, like any “high,” it passes quickly and then you’re left with the result. Kids who get everything they want are left with nothing to dream about, nothing to aspire to. Isn’t it better to delight them but to also leave them with something to want? It’s so easy to get caught up in the conspicuous consumerism of the season that many parents lose sight of the meaning of gift-giving.

(This is why I have an aversion to bridal, baby or any other gift registry. When did gift-giving become about the gift? What happened to the time when you bought a gift for someone because you thought about who they were and what they meant to you and picked something that fit those parameters? If they pick the gift, doesn’t that negate the whole idea of giving someone a gift you chose especially for them? But, that’s a topic for a whole other post.)

Our daughters shared pretty nicely when they were young. They still do. (Although I think once Tamra may have charged Shira to borrow her boots but I might be remembering that wrong.)

Oh, and the other cool thing…. our daughters love giving presents as much as they love getting them. (Well, almost as much.) When we exchange gifts, we do so one at a time with all of us watching the reaction of the recipient so we can all enjoy the moment of spontaneous delight.  I love that our girls enjoy the gift-giving so much. I hope that when they are parents, that doesn’t become a problem. 🙂

Alexis Writes:

It’s true that I love to give gifts as well as get them. I always put a lot of thought into my gifts. I have heard some of my students over the years comment about the gifts they are hoping to receive. They mention items such as a PSP, a wii, a Nintendo DS and ipod nanos. I’m always suprised to hear these things, as they are items I think worthy of adult gifts and I wonder what is left for them to enjoy if at 6 years old they get an ipod nano. We bought Tamra a nano this year because her ipod kept sad macking and we couldn’t deal with her complaining anymore. We knew it was a good gift because she kept saying ” Oh my god, I didn’t expect this.”.

My sister’s gifts are the gifts that I always look forward to. Over the last ten years we always team up and buy several gifts for the other sister. It eliminates comparison and it’s easier to come up with ideas when you have another person to help you. They are in a way the best gifts because they seem to know what I want even when I don’t. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a drama free system. It takes communication and cooperation and if someone isn’t in the mood it can be an annoying process. But, whatever leads up to the giving doesn’t seem to matter once that sister opens the gift.

But I think the reason I appreciate my sister’s gifts so much is that I know what a process it is for the two of them to get them together and I appreciate all the thought I know is put into it. And that’s the whole point of giving a gift, the thought.

Tamra writes:

God, do I love gifts. I like giving them, but mostly, I like getting them. Alexis is right. The gifts I get from them are always the best (sorry mom and dad, but it’s true). They know about things that I want that I didn’t even know I wanted. And believe me, I want everything.

Buying gifts is always hard though. I have to exercise a lot of self control when shopping for other people so I don’t end up coming out with 10 things for myself as well. I always feel like I know what Alexis and Shira want, but then it turns out it’s something that I wanted. Fortunately, we like a lot of the same stuff, and we can still do the whole sharing thing (which is how I’m saving money not having to go to MAC to buy that expensive lipstick – thanks Shira).  I love when Alexis or Shira opens up a gift and it’s something that I wanted as well. I can always convince Shira that it’s something that is meant for both of us…It’s like getting double the presents!

It’s nice that we’ve finally got the whole gift giving thing down to a science. This time of year is especially hard because we’ve got a million birthdays in the fall plus it’s the holidays. But with the combo presents it makes it a lot easier and somebody is bound to be able to think of something we can buy for dad (even if it is plastic magnet picture frames). There is always some arguing as it gets a little tense when the clock is ticking and we still can’t find anything for someone. Always the yelling of “I thought of the last one, it’s your turn!”

It all ends up working out in the end, mostly because I got a beautiful pink Ipod that I really never expected. Who cares if the 6 year olds in Alexis’s class got the same gift as me this year??

Ned Writes: Giving gifts scares me. I’m short on ideas, I never know what to get, and I really hate shopping. I always think that the best gifts are practical things, something you can really use, something you need, and I am probably wrong. Except when we bought our kids cars for their 21st birthdays. Isn’t a car is a practical gift, especially if it is a Ford? If you live in the suburbs it’s the only way to get to work. What suburban kid takes a bus? And with that in mind, Debby and I decided that we would give Alexis a car for her 21st birthday. It was a big decision for us but we felt that Alexis earned it for all those summers she worked for us at our Italian ice shop in the Outer Banks. She was going to start student teaching the next semester and would be looking for work after her senior year at college. So even though it was December and her birthday wasn’t until the end of March, we bought her a shiny new Ford Escort, which was actually cheaper than a late model used car, thanks to a sweet zero percent interest rate. We drove the car to her school and she was so shocked and excited about it. And I guess we knew that when we gave Alexis the car we were committing ourselves to buying a car for Tamra and Shira when they reached 21.

How could we pull off a surprise for Tamra? She was home from school on her 21st birthday and we parked the car on the side on the house where it wasn’t visible. This time it was a slightly-used sporty Ford Focus. During the “present” ceremony, we gave Tamra a CD which was the owner’s manual to the car. When she opened the CD and we told her the gift was actually a car she didn’t believe us and actually got upset because she didn’t think that joke was funny. But when we told her to look outside on the driveway, her eyes lit up and we took a spin around the neighborhood.

Shira took our old Ford Taurus to Penn State. We were both working at home and rarely used a second car. We bought another new Ford Focus for Shira’s 21st, drove the car up to Penn State, and presented it to her. She was thrilled and surprised with her new set of wheels and she didn’t mind at all when we took her Princessmobile (as she named the family car because it sported a tiara on the dashboard) back to the dealer in trade. She knew she was getting a car but just didn’t know when or how.

I never thought that buying a car for my kids was going to spoil them, although some of our friends told us they thought it was a bad idea. I still think that buying our girls cars was a good, though expensive, decision. It was a bit extravagant but my rationale was that they are all responsible, all three received good grades in school, and diligently worked in the family business every summer. We really couldn’t have stayed in business without their effort and support. If they didn’t all show themselves to be responsible people, then I don’t believe I would have been willing to make such an expensive purchase. And they all seem to appreciate the good things that come to them, big and small. So maybe the cars for their 21st birthdays really wasn’t so much a gift as pay back.

Shira writes: Since we were little, our parents have always stressed the importance of gifts being personal and meaningful. Gift cards were not allowed. To this day, I find myself saying on first dates that I think flowers are a generic and meaningless gift. (Maybe not the best dating strategy, but that’s a topic for another post). We all spend a lot of time and money putting together the perfect gifts for each other. I think the reason the three of us buy each other such great gifts every year, is because we listen to each other without realizing. Although Tamra has been complaining about her broken iPod for 6 months, she never specifically asked for a new one, and Tamra has never been shy about asking for things she wants. When Alexis and I started to discuss what we should get for Tamra this year, the first thought that crossed both of our minds, “Tamra needs a new iPod.”

I honestly believe that even though gift-giving was a big deal, we managed to get out without becoming spoiled. I distinctly remember a time when all we wanted were American Girl Dolls. My parents felt that $80 or more for a doll was a bit extravagant. They decided that we would be just as happy playing with the paper doll versions, and if I’m remembering correctly, we were. When visiting a friend’s house, I noticed that her beautiful Kirsten doll lived in a box at the top of her closet and was never played with. Our paper dolls may have come free in the catalog, but we were having a lot more fun with them.

As the youngest of three, it was harder to surprise me with gifts they had already bought for Alexis and Tamra. When I was about to turn 21, I didn’t want to allow myself to expect to get a car, but I couldn’t help it. I had watched both of my sisters receive cars for their 21st birthdays just years before. When my parents presented me with the old Taurus to take back to school, I was thrilled, but there was a small part of me wondering why everyone else had gotten a new car. It wasn’t until about a year later when my parents came to visit me at Penn State; they arrived in a car I had never seen before. “Happy 21st birthday!” my mother said as she handed me the keys. It was only about a month before my 22nd birthday, so I said, “Don’t you mean Happy 22nd?” I realized then that my parents had wanted to me to get the chance to be as surprised as my sisters were. I still feel it was worth the wait. And yes, I still drive around with that tiara on my dashboard.



  1. So true, our kids shared gifts. We just laughed over Christmas about the girls getting Barbies when they were young and their little brother, Ryan, crying because he didn’t a “bobbie”!

    Ryan has become the “gift distributor” at our house making sure each person is holding a gift and then we go around the room opening, just like you, so that everyone can enjoy the surprise and gratitude from everyone.

    I like giving more than receiving! Thanks for sharing! Love reading it!

  2. Hey, don’t get me wrong. I still like receiving gifts but I guess it means you may be a grown up when giving them is even more fun!

  3. First of all I love your family blog. It awesome that you all participate together and will truly be something to treasure in the coming years.

    I also had an ah-ha moment this Christmas. I have two small boys. In the past years Christmas has been fun but our boys were so small and happy with the shiny bows we never felt the need to go over board. This year for whatever strange reason I got caught up in the shopping hysteria. Way Way too much stuff. It was definitely a lesson well learned and one I won’t repeat. I agree it is a hard balance but as long as you strive to instill the right beliefs and actions in your children you’re on the right track.

    Thanks for the insight!

  4. You are so right. Sometimes, often really, we have to do the wrong thing in order to figure out what the right thing is for us. I love your point about the “shiny bows.” Maybe we should have just stuck to that and let the kids think those were the gifts. Truth be told, our girls still like the bows… a lot. Thanks for reading and taking the time to check in.

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