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Sorry, kids, Santa's tightening his belt Add to ...

Fat tears rolled down Logan Roberts's face when his mom said Santa was cutting back on gifts this year.

The 10-year-old desperately wanted an iPod, his mother says, and he asked Santa to slip one under the tree to save his parents from buying one.

"He said, 'Christmas is my only chance to ask Santa to buy it instead of you,' " says Mindy Roberts, a 40-year-old mother of three.

"My kids just think it's the greatest because Santa gives [gifts]for free so that if they ask for them for Christmas, then it doesn't impact me. It's really very cute."

Cute, but also stressful for parents trying to hoard cash this season should they fall on hard times in 2009. Dreading the sight of disappointed little faces on Christmas morning, parents are having to explain why Santa won't be as generous this year, while keeping their own anxiety levels to a minimum.

A recent American Psychological Association survey finds eight in 10 people are bracing themselves for an extra-stressful holiday season.

Eighty-two per cent of respondents blame their dwindling funds and the general state of the economy for that stress.

Tanis Miller, a stay-at-home mother outside of Camrose, Alta., chopped her holiday gift budget in half in early November and told her kids, Mackenzie, 12, and Nash, 11, not to expect the big ticket items on their lists this year.

"They're asking for cellphones this Christmas and they're getting slippers," the 33-year-old says.

Her husband, Bruce, is off the oil rigs for the winter, and the rocky economy offers no guarantee he'll return come spring, she says, so they're saving any extra money just in case. And while the kids understand the economy won't allow for a gift-heavy holiday, Ms. Miller still expects to see pouts into the new year.

"I think they're too young right now, the material side is still going to slap them upside the head," she says. "There are going to be friends of theirs that get all kinds of cool gifts. When they look back on it, I'm hoping they'll be able to appreciate the choices we made."

While a straightforward approach is often good, a serious discussion may do more to freak out your kids than to help them understand why Santa won't bring them a Disney Princess LCD TV or a Nintendo Wii gaming system, says Sara Dimerman, author of Am I a Normal Parent?

Explaining that the state of the economy is why you're being frugal may work for older kids, but is probably too complex for youngsters, she says. Instead of yammering on about the stock market, let the kids in on a holiday budget you've set out and suggest they troll catalogues and the Internet to find items they want in that price range.

Until her 8½-year-old son asks, Karen Gow doesn't think she'll raise the topic, despite her plan to scale back spending this year.

"I don't know if there's a part of me that wants to protect him from the realities of the world," the mother of two from Richmond Hill, Ont., says of her son (she asked to keep her children's names private). "I don't think he'll see a big difference [between]this year and last year. He knows a gaming system costs a lot more than a book."

But if you choose to take the straight-talk express, tread carefully, says Alyson Schafer, a psychotherapist and parenting expert based in Toronto.

"I don't think we need to say Santa Claus is poor this year," she says. "Prepare your kids rather than protect. If you're lying, I don't think that's healthy," she says. "But at the same time, we need to be a bit of a windscreen for our children, whereby we filter the appropriate amount of information to them so we don't create fear or anxiety."

If you want to protect the North Pole mystique, you can always spend less on gifts from the parents and more on Santa presents, she says.

Instead of focusing on the doom and gloom of the economy, this is a good opportunity for parents to teach their kids how to manage money, Ms. Schafer says.

"We've been living in a bubble and the bubble's popped. That's going to trickle down to kids and consumers and family. That's a healthy thing, frankly."

But even if you still have enough cash to buy Johnny the iPhone he desperately wants, are you telling him it's okay to spend while others are pinching pennies?

Ms. Dimerman doesn't think so, but she's all for setting limits.

"If parents have a huge amount of disposable income and they can well afford it, that's one thing. But even if they can afford it, do they want their child at a very young age to have those kinds of items?"

Despite little Logan's flood of tears, Ms. Roberts is glad she was upfront with her kids about Santa's cutbacks this year. As a bonus, the San Jose, Calif., mother was able to remind them of the holiday's true roots.

"The way we try to explain it is that even though you have to go back to the real meaning of Christmas, it's about being with family and not about getting this or getting that," she says. "They know that money's tight and they know the economy is bad all over - they're grumpy about it but they understand."

*****

The money talk

Talking to your kids about the failing economy doesn't have to be the nightmare before Christmas. Here's how to clue them in without freaking them out:

DO

Keep your chat age-appropriate. Kids older than 10 will have

a better grasp of the economy, younger kids will understand basic budget constraints in the home.

Tell them what Santa's budget is - they'll be more inclined to pick gifts within your price range.

Try a little humour.

DON'T

Tell them Santa Claus is poor - just that he has more homes to visit - and we all must try to share and not be greedy.

Let the kids sense your stress. The more alarmed you appear, the more worried they'll be about you.

Sarah Boesveld

 

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