While many parents may preach that it's better to give than to receive, knowing how much to give isn't easy.
Jody Johnston Pawel, author of "The Parent's Toolshop," knows firsthand that going overboard is a mistake, as tempting as it may be to do so.
She remembers going on a shopping spree one year that backfired. Because it was fun, she bought a small mountain of presents, none very expensive, for her son and daughter. They were overwhelmed.
"The kids had too much," Ms. Pawel remembers. "It was like, 'Gosh, I'm kind of tired of opening gifts.' " Sometimes one special gift can be better, Pawel says, and if it's expensive, parents and grandparents can go in on it together.
Like others who study parent-child relations, Pawel suggests that children make wish lists, based on what they perceive their real interests to be and not on impulse.
"There's nothing more frustrating than seeing a gift that gets a 'Well, that's really nice. What's next?" says David Katzner, president of the National Parenting Center, which carries toy reviews on its Web site (www.tnpc.com).
Diane Levin, who teaches at Wheelock College in Boston, says that marketing to children sends the message that consuming is tied to happiness.
A child might begin with a 10-item wish list, but the parents' job is to help the youngster pare it down to perhaps the two best choices.
"Look at the list and talk about the items," Professor Levin says. "Ask, 'How is this like what you already have? How is it different? What could you do with it that would make you want to use it after the first day?"
Mr. Katzner also encourages talking with a child's friends to get additional feedback in identifying the best gift ideas. These can be shared with relatives interested in making their gift purchases count.
Elisa All, the president and editor in chief of iParenting.com, an internet community for parents, has three young children. Her twin preschool girls, she says, enjoy playing with the wrapping paper as much as with their gifts.
Given the simple pleasures children take in such things, Ms. All says, parents can tell extended family members to spend modestly on gifts.
"We need to think about how we are raising our affluent children," Levin says, "and the importance of saying no, not for monetary reasons but for ethical and developmental reasons."
The idea isn't to withhold gifts, but to give them wisely, and perhaps even to make them.
Both strategies are addressed in the 2000-2001 Toy Action Guide of TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment), which Levin directs.
TRUCE's Web site (www.whee lock.edu/truce) shares ideas for shoebox gifts, made by placing collections of small, familiar items, organized around a theme, in a decorated shoebox (for example, a water-play theme, with a rubber ducky, squirt bottles, little toy boats, etc).
Parents and grandparents often say these are favorite gifts with children. "You make the box look special, you put contact paper on it or a pretty picture and do things that make it seem very special and young children love it," Levin says.
Parents can't always stem the flow of gifts to their children, but they can spread it out in various ways. Some may divide the present opening between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Others encourage devoting play time after each toy is opened rather than rushing to unwrap everything at once.
The strategy All and her husband have adopted calls for putting away some toys for weeks or months later, leaving out only those the child wants to play with right away. "The gifts are unwrapped, but they're not taken out of the package," she explains.
Parents, Levin says, should pay particular attention to the boxes toys come in. Many are geared to create a desire for other toys. "Look at the information on the box," she suggests. "Is it useful information about the toy or information that is manipulating kids into being unhappy about what they don't have? Better toys tend not to focus on the other things you can buy, but on the thing you are buying."
One point that many parenting experts make is that Christmas and the holidays are a good time to encourage children to be giving too. Before children receive new Christmas toys or clothes, Pawel says, they can identify some they've used to give away to charities, which in turn distribute them to needy youngsters.
"Children are benevolent, they want to give, inherently they want to help other people," All says. "This year I've already started talking to our son, saying, 'Look around, is this toy something you're playing with anymore, or would another little boy like to play with it?' I'm planting the seed so when it comes time to actually give it away he's prepared. I think this year is going to go even better than last year."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society