Should kids be expected to give gifts? Here's what experts say.

Should kids be expected to give gifts? Here's how they can participate around the holidays. (Photo: Getty)
Should kids be expected to give gifts? Here's how they can participate around the holidays. (Photo: Getty)

The holiday season means gathering with loved ones for shared meals and festivities, and oftentimes, those celebrations also include gift exchanges. While gift exchanges tend to be a reciprocal ritual for adults, usually children are exempt from the "giving" part of such traditions — even if they are the ones who get the most presents. Whether or not the kids in your life are of the mentality that it's better to give than receive, it may be on your mind exactly how they can become a part of holiday gift giving — especially without any income of their own.

Aja Evans, a licensed mental health counselor and financial therapist, tells Yahoo Life that when it comes to younger kids, it's important to consider how they can realistically give gifts, without spending money they don't have. One way, she explains, is by changing what a gift means.

"Kids should understand that giving a gift is not [necessarily] about spending money," she says. "There are tons of ways for kids and other people, including adults, to give gifts without ever having to spend a dime at a store. You can get creative and use your time and your effort. I remember giving my mom a set of cards, which said things like, 'I'll cook dinner' or 'I will take the dog for a walk five times.' Gifts can be little gestures that say, 'I'm giving you my time and my effort and I care about you and this is a gift I can give.'"

But when is it appropriate for kids to start to think about giving back in the first place? Melinda Wenner Moyer, author of the science-based parenting book How to Raise Kids Who Aren't A**holes, says that kids will typically start considering their place in the gift-giving process as early as age 5, when theory of mind — the childhood development stage when children begin to comprehend that other people have different thoughts and desires — begins to solidify. However, not all children were start thinking about giving presents at the same time.

"I think this really depends on the child and family, and there is no 'one right age,'" she explains. "I have two kids, and one started thinking about gift giving at a younger age than the other. It could depend in part on how well-developed their theory of mind skills are, and on family priorities and dynamics — do other family members discuss gift giving regularly in front of them, for example?"

She points out that parents can also "plant seeds" for kids who "aren't showing interest" in gift giving.

"I might say, 'I love the holidays! I love thinking about what everyone in the family might appreciate as a gift. Have you started thinking about whether you might like to give gifts this year, and what you think Dad/your sister/Grandma might like? Let me know if you want to brainstorm together,'" Moyer shares.

Like Evans, Moyer also recalls her own experience giving her parents "ticket books," which included things like "one room cleaning" that they could redeem. Outside of homemade gifts, she suggests parents set up a budget for their kids on how much each child can spend on their loved ones for the holidays. In fact, she says, gift giving can be one way of helping children learn how to budget.

"Parents could either give each child a gift-giving fund that they can draw from over the holidays — like, each child gets $40 to spend on family members — or they could set this up with allowances," she tells Yahoo Life, adding that kids may find it helpful to create three separate jars designated for "spending," "saving" and "giving."

"Kids can use their 'give' money for presents around the holidays," she says.

Children don't always know what their gift recipient may really want — and, instead, may gift based on their own needs. Moyer says it's important for parents to shift the conversation.

"When a child is pondering possible gift ideas, I suggest that parents encourage the child to try to put themselves in the gift recipient's shoes so that they give something that they think the recipient will want — not something that they, the kid, would want," Moyer explains. "A parent could say: 'What kinds of activities does Aunt Kate enjoy? Do you remember what she does in her free time? Based on those interests, what do you think she might like from you?' This kind of perspective-taking promotes the development of a skill called 'theory of mind,' which is linked with generous and compassionate behavior. I also encourage kids to think outside the box and consider donations to charities as gifts. If Aunt Kate loves humpback whales, giving to an organization that helps them could make an excellent gift."

As children get older, they may have more disposable income, either from savings or from a part-time job. Psychologist Samara Toussaint says that while teens may have more money on hand, it can actually be experiences with their loved ones that are overall more valuable.

"If you already have a teenager or an older child, I actually would recommend time gifts or gifts of service," she notes. "At their developmental stage, teenagers often prioritize their friends over family. Other family members might appreciate their presence and time more than ever since they may not see them as often. It will serve as a reminder that spending time with family is just as important."

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