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The gift that keeps on giving

It's started. Last year, oldest my daughter could only come up with one thing she wanted for Christmas: "A present." This year, at the ripe age of three and a half, she has a far more detailed list. Despite our best efforts to shield her from the consumer-centric aspect of our culture, she's on to the idea that with Christmas comes evermore elaborate presents.

While her request for a doll potty is doable, I recently came across another mom whose four-year-old wants a Vespa-style scooter. These days, with marketing powers shaping our children's wants from such an early age, the challenge for parents is ensuring kids have reasonable expectations about what they'll find under the tree.

On the flip side, parents have to be realistic about what their budget will allow and recognize that Christmas isn't simply a time to lavish children with gifts. The holiday season is expensive, and too many people go into debt to finance the so-called good times. While it's tempting to close your eyes and slap down the credit card, the price could be far greater than the cost of gifts (plus interest).

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Hurting kids with kindness
While there's nothing more fun than ensuring your child gets a much-anticipated present from Santa, constantly indulging children comes with long-term consequences, according to Maggie Mamen, a Nepean, Ont.-based clinical psychologist and author of The Pampered Child Syndrome. Not only do spoiled children tend to be demanding and ungrateful, they also come to think that love is measured by the size and value of gifts.

"We live in a child-centered society where children's wants and demands are increasingly being given priority over marital or family harmony, financial considerations, parental sanity, common courtesy, quiet enjoyment, respect and common sense," writes Mamen. "These well-intentioned parents are catering to their children's every whim and are actively avoiding, or even resisting, their responsibilities as parents to say 'no,' to set limits, to engender a sense of responsibility, and to teach morals, ethics, values and the importance of family and community. Children are not learning active or creative problem-solving strategies, or how to be resilient and responsible, or how to build up a range of internal resources to manage stress, loss, failure or disappointment."

The best gift of all
I'm not advocating doing away with gifts at Christmas -- presents are an important part of the magic -- but, it's important to show children what it means to live within one's means and, in doing so, bestow on them one of the most valuable gifts of all: financial discipline.

Teaching children about the difference between wants and needs, earning, saving and spending, not to mention the importance of budgeting, is crucial. In their series "Teaching Children Money Habits for Life," Sharon M. Danes and Tammy Dunrud of the University of Minnesota point out that parents who take the time to teach their children good money habits will find it well worth the effort. "Children who are not taught these lessons pay the consequences for a lifetime," Danes and Dunrud say.

Laurie Campbell, executive director of Credit Canada, sees firsthand the crippling effects poor money management skills and debt can have on people's lives. "We spend far too little time talking about one of the most important life skill tools," she says. "It's a huge taboo issue. People would rather talk about their sex lives than money."

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-- Posted: Dec. 17, 2007
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