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I knew I might be in trouble when, on a recent family trip to Chicago, my three-year-old asked if he could put the whole city "on his list."

This list was an easy crutch I'd devised months ago, when my little one seemed to be morphing into a pint-sized shopaholic. He'd reflexively ask for a toy the minute he saw it on TV, in a store or at a friend's house. "Put it on your list," I'd say, explaining that we'd revisit the list come Christmas.

So, as the big day approaches, the list looms extra-large. Thankfully, my son has likely forgotten most of what's on it (including, I deeply hope, those horrid enormous Stompeez slippers that caught his eye on TV), but how, exactly do I ensure that his expectations aren't unrealistic?

I've been collecting strategies. One is to remind my kid that Santa only has room for, say, three presents for him in his sleigh. Or that demand is up this year, so there's only so much for each child. Another, more earnest idea was recently raised by Wisconsin mother Tina Peterson in the Chicago Tribune. Ask children to make a list of four items: one want, one need, one wear, one read.

While Toronto parenting expert Jennifer Kolari says it's fine to have a set standard like this in your household, these gimmicks may not get to the heart of the issue. It's not our kids who are to blame for their long lists and iPad tastes, she says. (A Nielsen survey last month found that almost half of U.S. kids from aged 6 to 12 put an Apple iPad on their holiday wish lists this year.)

The problem is "actually us," she says, adding that modern parents have upped the spending ante on everything from birthday parties to routine $20 tooth-fairy rewards. She cites a statistic circulated by Simplicity Parenting authors Jim John Payne and Lisa M. Ross, that the average American child has 150 toys. And that's per child, not household. Kolari sees a link between overindulgence and rising rates of children's anxiety and other mental-health problems.

"We've moved away from children getting a couple of things and some stocking stuffers," she says. "Children, especially the little ones, get overwhelmed opening too many gifts."

So the holiday season offers not only a chance to make Christmas morning meltdown-free, but also a focal point for curbing the whole family's relationship to shopping and acquiring. Children can be asked to cull their toy collections in anticipation of a couple of new toys, for instance.

Kolari urges parents to take a moment in the coming weeks to lay out all of the kids' unwrapped gifts and consider an audit. "Sometimes we get caught up in buying," she says. Think about putting half of the gifts away for your child's next birthday or other children's birthdays, she says – or even returning some of them to the store.

After talking to Kolari, I broached the topic. Although my son immediately started negotiating for four, not three gifts from Santa and family, his wish list thus far includes a Pez dispenser and a "Christmas decoration."

Now, this is shaping up to be my kind of list.