Office of Research

The four things kids really want this holiday season

Published December 6, 2011

URBANA — For many families, the holidays mean running from one house to the next to participate in family events, purchasing the latest and greatest gifts, sending out cards or notes, and eating all sorts of food. But these families may be missing the boat, said Janice McCoy, a University of Illinois Extension family life educator.

"Remember that young children can become stressed and overstimulated by all the sights, sounds, and smells they're experiencing. You don't want to end up proclaiming that you don't enjoy the holidays and can't wait for them to be over," she said.

For families who celebrate Christmas, McCoy recommends the book Unplug the Christmas Machine. In it authors Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock-Staeheli urge families to escape the stress of the season and create a more joyful time for families. Much of what they write about, however, also applies to families that may not celebrate Christmas.

"One concern voiced by most parents is shielding their children from the excesses of holiday commercialism. While adults can mute the TV when the ads get annoying, children are defenseless against the onslaught of ads," they write.

According to the authors, as early as the age of four or five, kids can lose the ability to be delighted by the sights and sounds of the holidays. Instead, they may gain a two-month-long obsession with brand-name toys. Suddenly, all they seem to care about is how many presents they will be getting and how many days are left until they unwrap them.

"Many families struggle with slowing down the pace of life at this time of year—and other times too," McCoy said. "The task might become easier if we think about the four things other than presents that children really want."

Robinson and Coppock-Staeheli argue that children don't really want clothes, toys, and games exclusively. The four things they really want are:

1. A relaxed and loving time with the family. Children prefer to be in their own homes in a relaxed atmosphere with their families. Many normal family routines are upset during the holiday season. It's important to slow down and spend quality time with your kids.

2. Realistic expectations about gifts. Kids enjoy looking forward to gifts and then having their expectations met. The key is to manage their expectations. For instance, you might want to explain to your children that advertisers really want you to buy their products even if you don't need them.

3. An evenly paced holiday season. The key is to remember that the holidays are a season! We don't have to visit everyone and do everything in one day. You may want to spread your family visits out to after New Year's Day.

4. Reliable family traditions. We typically remember the things we did as a family during the holidays, not the gifts we received. So this year, start or renew a family tradition, such as driving around to look at lights, baking cookies for a neighbor, caroling, or brightening your home with family-made decorations. Children will likely remember the traditions, not the gifts.

"This year, try to unplug your holiday season, pace yourself, and spend more time enjoying your family," McCoy advised.