When Santa Doesn’t Visit: How to Talk to Kids About Financial Hardship

Whether it’s big, small, or nothing at all, here’s how parents can help kids understand that presents have nothing to do with whether they’re naughty or nice.

For parents working hard to make ends meet, gift-giving during the holidays can bring added pressure and stress. Getty Images

Santa has been a hot topic this holiday season, with everything from memes to blog posts in USA Today imploring parents to give small from the big guy on Christmas morning.

The reasoning behind this Christmas request is a noble one: Proponents say that children compare what Santa brings, and that those who receive less from the jolly man in red might conclude it was because they were bad the year before.

No one is saying you shouldn’t still give big to your kids if that’s what your heart desires. The argument is simply that the big stuff should be tagged from Mom and Dad, with just a few small things from Santa himself.

But is that the right way to handle the inevitable disparities on Christmas morning?

What the experts say

Maybe not, according to Michele Levin, family therapist and co-owner of Blueprint Mental Health. She told Healthline that this line of thinking is actually a problem.

“We need to teach our kids that sometimes you’ll get ice cream, and sometimes you won’t — but the kid next to you might. This might sound harsh, but this is how kids build resilience. Bubble wrapping our kids so they don’t feel bad causes more harm than good in the long run,” she said.

Opinions across the internet seem to disagree, with more and more mommy blogs pushing the idea that Santa shouldn’t give big.

And the comments have been getting heated, with those on the side of giving big begging others to stay out of their family traditions, and those on the side of keeping it small calling them selfish and accusing a lack of empathy.

So who’s right?

The message being sent

Healthline reached out to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) spokesperson and pediatrician Dr. Corinn Cross.

She explained that while the AAP doesn’t have any explicit guidelines regarding how parents should or shouldn’t give from Santa, she wasn’t convinced parents should be worried about comparisons to begin with.

“I’m not sure it’s really a thing I’ve ever heard children talk about, feeling less than others because of what they got from Santa, or even being able to accurately compare.”

She explained that she doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the idea of telling families what to do for other families’ sake, but then added, “I do think we should talk about what message we are sending to our kids when we give them an overabundance of toys. We should be asking ourselves, ‘Is that really something they need?’”

Why some families might go big

For Jaimie Russell, a mom of two in Washington, giving big really has a lot to do with her own childhood.

“My husband and I both grew up never experiencing the big gifts. We came from divorced/split families and I am the oldest of four. I was always thankful for what I got, but as a child, you still yearn. So to an extent, we live vicariously through our kids now,” she said.

She explained that they talk to their kids about the importance of being humble and not bragging.

And they’ve also made a concerted effort to help their children understand why Santa might bring different gifts to different families — and that the number of gifts under the tree has nothing at all to do with how good a child may be.

“I really think that if my 5-year-old can understand that everyone does things differently and that what works for one family might not work for another, if he can get that, I really feel like the adults should try a little harder to also understand it.”

Naughty or nice?

In fact, it may be that our messaging surrounding Christmas and Santa is really the problem.

According to a whole other slew of mommy blogs, framing Santa as the giver of gifts only to good children — and using Santa as a threat to keep your kids in line — may be the bigger issue.

Obviously, the internet is full of opinions. But when we return to the experts, they’re simply advising parents to talk to their kids.

Levin explained, “If a child says something around the nature of ‘was I not as good because I didn’t get a big gift from Santa?’ (which would be a normal thing for a child to ask, not a warning sign of poor self-esteem); what a teachable moment!”

Her advice in that situation is to:

  • Talk to your kids and validate how they feel.
  • Don’t dismiss them.
  • Have a conversation that helps them understand the gifts had nothing to do with how good they were.

“What parents tell their children is what has the biggest impact on their self-esteem — not whether or not they received a big gift from Santa.” Levin continued. “And P.S., you can make a ‘small’ gift really meaningful. It’s all about the delivery.”

Small gifts can feel even bigger when they’re given in a meaningful way. Getty Images

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Cross agrees. “You don’t have to feel pressured to really make it this Hollywood-style Christmas morning. Think about what they need, what you have coming up throughout the year, and what you might all be able to enjoy as a family.”

For families that are worried about not being able to give their children as much as the neighbors or their peers, Cross said, “Kids aren’t as materialistic as people think they are. I think it’s much more about the experience and magic of Christmas, and I think there are a lot of ways to bring that magic and joy of Christmas without spending a lot of money.”

She recommends parents wrap whatever they can — even just small things kids need that you would have bought anyway.

She also recommends writing a letter from Santa, which is free and can sometimes mean more to kids than anything you might buy.

“It really is about spending time together and creating those memories,” she said.

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