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My toddler gets too many gifts. How can we stop excess?

THE QUESTION

We struggle with the quantity of gifts our 18-month-old son gets for Christmas and birthdays from our large, loving, extended family. What gift-season strategies have you seen from parents that would encourage a sense of gratitude and avoid excess?

THE ANSWER

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We know many parents with conflicted feelings at this time of year. The commercialization of Christmas feels far removed from the true meaning of the season, but they can't bear to take away the magic of their children's experience opening gifts from under the tree, or the pride felt by the grandparents, aunts and uncles watching the excitement.

The families who've found a comfortable balance have relied on proactive communication.

Most doting relatives who aren't part of a child's everyday life don't really know what to give, so they buy lots of stuff and hope some of it sticks.

We, for example, used to have a pile of baseball mitts in our parents' garage – thoughtful gifts from numerous different relatives on numerous occasions over the years, to two boys who never played baseball.

So don't wait for the gifts to come in – take charge and co-ordinate the giving binge well ahead of time. Be clear about what your child does and does not need.

The wish list is a tried and tested tool to prevent that look we've all seen in a child's eyes when they unwrap a new pair of corduroys. Like a wedding registry, cross items off the list as family members report in. Or just ask them to pick one and send the money, so you can ensure the perfect fit – it'll still be "From Nana" under the tree and guaranteed to be a hit with your child.

For the wild cards who like to be creative, give clear ideas of what your children are into: what superhero they would want on pyjamas, what kinds of books they love most, or what their favourite colour currently is (this may need a live online update feature).

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If you want to avoid excess, suggest that relatives give "the gift of time" – take the kids skating, sledding or to a movie. Often, this is also a gift to the parents for a much-needed date night. Then consider rallying the whole family around one major gift – besides, those are the ones that are remembered years later, like our childhood treasured Nintendo video-game station.

There's even a website that does the co-ordinating for you. ECHOage.com was started by two mothers seeking an alternative to the conventional gift splurge often associated with birthdays. From their site you send party invitations explaining your desire to avoid excess, and you collect donations that are then divided up: Fifty per cent goes to one major gift for the birthday boy or girl, and 50 per cent to a charity of the child's choice.

There's no escaping the fact that kids love new things, so making the holidays and celebrations less about piles of gifts could also involve a more spaced-out flow of newness throughout the year. If there isn't a local toy library, many parents link up with several other families for a monthly toy exchange – both options provide rotating new toys for young ones that don't pile up in your closets.

Then at Christmas, a few large items will be enough. And if you have stockings to stuff, fill them with consumables like homemade cookies and items you would have had to buy anyway, like funky socks or a new toothbrush featuring their favourite cartoon character. The great thing about very young children, for whom the gift boxes are often more fascinating than their contents, is that anything new is exciting.

Having reduced the focus on gift-getting from a young age, you can stress that family togetherness is part of the holiday spirit. Make new Christmas traditions like a board-games day, sing-along evening or volunteer excursion. As your children grow older, those are the moments that will define the excitement of these occasions.



Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at facebook.com/craigkielburger and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to Livebetter@globeandmail.com.

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