Ask Design Mom: Too Many Christmas Gifts

Hi Design Mom. I am hoping you can help me. I am stuck for Christmas ideas for my 6 year old boy. Every year I buy too much, and only one or two things get played with. I would like to get him a few good presents, but I have no clue. I have been looking around for ideas, but nothing stand out. He is creative, he just started kindergarten and is eager to learn, and he loves cars! Any help would be appreciated. Thank you. — Tricia Hamilton

Excellent question, Tricia. Anyone who celebrates Christmas is bound to fantasize about the ideal Christmas morning — fire in the fireplace, snow softly falling outside, and the perfect toys under the tree. But it’s easy for Christmas to get out of hand, with a pile of gifts that Junior just isn’t that interested in.

In an attempt to reign in my shopping, early in our marriage I adopted my sister-in-law’s policy. At our house, Santa brings each child something to wear, something to read, and something to play with. And that’s it. There are other gifts from siblings and grandparents, but Santa just brings three. This has been a really helpful guide for me. I’m able to stay within budget and concentrate on finding something my child would really love.

I realize you’re looking for specific gift ideas, not guidelines or policies, so I’d say, for any boy who loves cars, a matchbox car playmat is ideal. The one pictured here was handmade and shows the child’s actual neighborhood. Neat!

What about you, Clever Readers? Do you have any gift ideas for Tricia? How do you keep Christmas gifts from getting out of hand?

73 thoughts on “Ask Design Mom: Too Many Christmas Gifts”

  1. We do something similar at our house: something to wear, something read, something she wants, something she needs. So that’s four gifts. But they don’t all come from Santa. He brings the “want” present. Our daughter is so young that we can’t easily determine what she really wants just yet, but we have a good idea of things that would go over well. And just so Santa doesn’t get all the glory, the need is usually still play-based, but more of a learning/educational item. Our traditions will grow and change as our family does, but we like the idea that we can keep things in check this way, and we see a variation of this plan working well into the future.

    I like the suggestion of a car mat. We’ve had good luck giving Automoblox cars as gifts to relatives in the past ( Aesthetically they’re pretty cool, but they’re also great because they come apart and go back together easily. So there are a few ways to engage with them, but they’re not overly complicated for younger kids. We’ve only ever given the mini versions. They’re still a good size (about kid-hand size), and they’re affordable if you want to go for more than one.

    I think art supplies are another great gift, especially as you said your son is creative. General/basic supplies are great because they’re flexible and allow for a range of activities. I think these easily fit into the need category. But Djeco makes some neat kits too if you think a bit of direction would be helpful. I’ve seen one that’s for origami planes, for example. They also make great games and puzzles.

    Wow. This got long. Sorry for the novel!

    I’m so excited about Christmas already. I guess it’s starting to show!

  2. love this idea, will definitely adopt this policy next Christmas when our little one arrives. It’s a good way to stick with quality instead of quantity too. And not to mention keeping the toy clutter to a minimum in a little SF apartment :)

  3. We have the same 3-gift rule (3 gifts — just like Baby Jesus received). It makes Christmas prep so much easier and enjoyable.

    As my kids get older, though, I’m thinking of having our Christmas “gift” be a trip. This idea is in its infancy for me. We’ll see where it goes.

    Best wishes, Tricia!

  4. This is great! Normally I’m not sure I would welcome parenting advice from Sarah Jessica Parker, but I saw her interviewed once, and she had convinced her son that Santa brings EVERY little boy and girl TWO TOYS! He was delighted naturally. Two Toys!!!! I was impressed. . .

  5. Gabrielle, do your kids get anything from you and your husband? I was talking with my mom the other day and she said if she could do it all over she’d give Santa less glory and give more of the gifts from her and my dad! This year is my daughter’s first Christmas so I’m trying to think of our policies. Luckily I have a few years to perfect it before she’ll really know what’s going on. :)

      1. My parents used to give one gift for us kids to share (usually a new puzzle or board game), which we always enjoyed. Later in life my friends asked if we thought our parents were cheap for only getting us one gift (hah!) but of course we knew no different so we never considered it at all!

  6. We decided after last Christmas that things were getting out of hand too. The kids were getting a pile of toys, and within a few months, they were all doanted to goodwill.

    Last January, as we were packing things up, we decided that this year, each child would get one gift from Mommy, one gift from Daddy, one gift from Santa, and one from each other (with only two kids, this means a grand total of four per kid).

    We told our 13 year old that that meant she should ‘hold back’ a little less on her list this year… in the past, she has been very consious about budget. Since there will be fewer items, we told her to add on the more expensive ones, as the BUDGET was still the same…. it was only the quantity that was different.

    The two year old really has no clue yet… so we aren’t as worried really, he isn’t making lists yet!!

    And we will fill stockings for each child still, which is where the books and craft supplies will go, along with a few treats!!

  7. Cheers to your sister-in-law. What a GREAT system. I will def. utilize that idea this holiday season. I find these Brain Quest booklets to be great. I just bought some for my neighbors son at a yard sale and he loves playing with his mother. They are portable for quick trivia in the car, waiting line, on the go. Bound together so no lost pages.

  8. Great ideas so far – I’m interested to see what other comments your other readers have. I have a 4-year-old boy, so I have the same dilemma. We follow a similar policy – Santa gets him one present, we get him one, and we fill his stocking. Once you add in grandmas and aunts/uncles, he gets plenty! My advice: ask him! Leave out some of the tons of toy catalogs we’re all receiving right now to get the ideas flowing and to get hints. Work with him to write a letter to Santa so that he can determine what he’d like and get excited about the possibility of getting it.

    Last year, my 3-year-old was most excited to receive a flashlight. That’s right – a flashlight. He wanted it to use at bedtime (and in forts etc), so that’s what he asked Santa for. I was happy to oblige! (He got plenty of other stuff too, but that’s what he ran down the stairs looking for.) This year, he saw his first movie in the theater (toy story 3), so he’s big on toy story stuff. His request: a slinky dog. Again, that’s almost too easy!

    1. My older son is similar. Here were his requests from Santa: A yo-yo (age 3), A whistle (age 4), now at almost 5 he is asking for one shiny pirate coin. And he said that if Santa doesn’t have that, he’d like another y0-yo. I love the simplicity.

      My parents didn’t get us tv’s, nintendos and all the giant gifts our friends got, but I always felt taken care of and am glad now that I wasn’t completely spoiled with gifts, but with attention and love.

  9. Santa brings one gift (plus stocking). We try to keep everyone limited to one gift for each girl. It’s still ridiculous. This will be the first year that the girls make gifts for each other. I’m really excited.

  10. We do just three as well, like some other readers here. We don’t stick to a type of thing, but it’s three overall. We’ve done this from the beginning, so it’s all our kids know. And it works well.

  11. I almost feel like I don’t have anything useful to add – what great comments everyone else has left! And, truthfully, I started out to commment only because that car playmat practically made me drool. WOW – what an amazing playmat! Makes me want to pull out the canvas and start drawing…

    But, before I do that (and discover I have no canvas), I’d just like to second the Mom who mentioned the flashlight… So often, we give BIG gifts, because from our vantage of years, it seems like there ought to Be big gifts. But I discovered, quite by accident, that some times its the little, inexpensive gifts that bring the greatest thrill. Like the year I gave my 5 year old neice a box of Twinkies. Yep – a box of Twinkies. Completely ridiculous AND junk food too. She stood up in the middle of the room, held the box over her head, announced to her other siblings that THIS BOX WAS ALL HER’S — and then she did a victory dance of joy. I haven’t laughed so hard in ages. Twinkies? $3 or $4. The joy that simple gift brought? Absolutely priceless.

  12. We actually took the Santa out of Christmas. It sounds scroogey from the get go, but it transformed our Christmas for the better! Add to that we try to focus on home made gifts. It was a radical change, but it had to done…

    1. @Dreamom – What do you say to your kids about Santa in general and how do you all handle the subject with friends? I have an almost 3 year old who doesn’t really understand Santa yet and was thinking of doing the same thing.

  13. How exciting to see my question posted!!

    Thank you everyone for your ideas. I am going to use your sister-in law’s plan. I think that is the best way to stick to a budget and get more use out of the gifts he does receive. Thanks once again.

  14. I try to limit gifts for a bunch of reason (space, money, desire to encourage other things that accumulation). We have an only child and he has enough cousins to hold his own basketball game so it’s hard to set limits when he has plenty of super close examples of other ways “Santa” operates.

    Anyway, I have realized the things *I* want for him aren’t always the things he actually likes. But neither are the things *other* people want for him (like his grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc). And just because he didn’t like it today doesn’t mean he won’t like it tomorrow.

    We’ve tried to be thoughtful and indulge his obvious interests when gift giving and it hasn’t always worked. And I’ve tried buying quality lasting toys that other kids like and he doesn’t like them enough to warrant the cost. It’s so hard to buy gifts for kids!

  15. Santa only brings one gift to our kids (plus stocking stuffers). They also each get a present from my husband and I– I try to give something handmade (although this year that’s probably not going to happen, since we’re expecting a Thanksgiving baby), and my husband usually gives them coupons or tickets for an activity to do with him (a ballgame or ice-skating outing, etc.– our 2 year old will be getting bus tokens this year because he’s obsessed with buses and cars and trucks). The activity gifts have been a huge hit with our kids in the past– it’s a great way to spread Christmas cheer a little further through the year. I love them because they don’t add to the clutter at our house.

  16. We do something from Santa (ie something they want), something to read and something handmade by me. It always makes me smile when they end up playing/using the handmade gifts over the thing they really wanted. Things that were big hits for my boys were dinosaur toys, toy airplanes and Legos. In fact these things still all get played with when they are setting up the imaginative play that 10 and 12 year olds do. Okay, so the dinosaurs are usually standing on a Lego building and catching the airplane as it is flying by, but hey they are still using their imaginations. I’ve found that if you go with the simple toy that requires imagination they usually play with that more than the toy that really only has one purpose.

  17. This is a great post! I’ve been in the same boat, trying to simplify, and make smart financial decisions. I have three kids, 4 and under, so the clutter adds up.

    I recently purchased Build a Birdhouse Kits, for less than $8 each, from Amazon. My almost 5 year old and almost 3 year old, loved being able to put them together (with their dads help, of course), it includes paint, then they can hang it indoors or out… I think items like that are a great gift (I’m going to purchase them for my nieces and nephews now)!

    I’m trying to find more gifts like this, as they are more meaningful then toys that will be broken and neglected before the New Year arrives!

  18. This is great! Last year we adopted the same “something to wear, something to read, something you want & something you need” policy. It worked really well as you’re able to fit just about anything into one of those categories! And it gives the kids a basic guideline for making lists…

    Great idea!

  19. My friend, Jenny, always writes a really great simple holiday article on her LobotoME blog: and
    I agree with less & little is more. And Handmade is SO much more and really illustrates the spirit of giving, plus it stimulates our local economy so much better than the Target toy from China. But we do have some Automoblox that we love, too.
    Awesome suggestions from all!

  20. Great topic!

    We have asked family members and friends to be very low-key in the way they give our kids gifts, so the majority of the gifts come from us.

    We generally do three small gifts for each child from Mom and Dad, a bigger gift that’s from Santa, and then a family gift that we open together Christmas Eve. Last year it was a board game, some fancy popcorn and other snacks. We played a few rounds together before bedtime. I like the ritual of opening one gift before bed and that by making it a family gift it doesn’t give kids any stress of picking the “right” one to open Christmas Eve.

    If you do a specific number of gifts for each kid, you have to be prepared going in that it will never be quite “fair.” A young kid might get three fun toys that don’t even add up to the cost of one item on the older kid’s wish list. And some years the ‘small’ gifts for older kids are very very small because the ‘big’ gift was particularly costly. (Our family motto is ‘it all balances out in the end’ so we aren’t particularly concerned with everything being 100% fair, but it’s important to some families.)

  21. We decided to start small since this is our second Christmas with a child. We’ll be doing one gift that my husband and I pick out together and a stocking. My husband pointed out that likely, things will just get bigger as our kids get older so if we start bigger than one gift now it may get out of control. Plus, my daughter gets so many gifts from grandparents that us buying stuff for her seems pointless. I really don’t want our house to get eaten up by toys!

    1. I know what you mean about grandparents. We got my little guy a wagon for christmas but had christmas @ my parents house so we left it @ ours thinking he would open it when we got home. He got so much @ my parents house that we left the wagon wrapped up and gave it to him for his birthday in May.

  22. Love your “policy” and love this post. It is too easy to get carried away in the actual season, and to have this guideline in place would solve so much of this.

    And the personalized playmat is brilliant!

  23. We have an easel with chalk board on one side and a dry erase whiteboard on the other. That is hands-down the most used item right now, especially with my first grader boy!

  24. wow, this is all great! and I am glad I am not the only person trying to already work Christmas into our October budget!

  25. I would suggest Magna Tiles – they are magnetic blocks and the kids can make really cool towers and designs with them. They are on the pricey side ($100 for 100 pc. box) but its the ONLY toy from last years hanuka that my kids STILL play with. the best $100 dollars I ever spent!! Good Luck!!

  26. I love this post.

    I had a culture shock last year when my in-laws showed me their “Christmas Glory Days” videos of when my husband and his cousins were little kids. They would virtually transform their home into Santa’s workshop on Christmas morning…insane amounts of toys…INSANE…each kid in the family would get dozens of beautiful gifts from Santa. Too much though – some of the gifts the kids didn’t even touch. (they all still really overdo it at Christmas time – they just can’t get over it, even though all of the “kids” are in their late 20’s!)

    I, however, grew up getting one gift from Santa and my stocking full of little treats, a new book, and practical stuff (like an extra pretty toothbrush, fun socks, and fancy pencils and hair things). And my sisters and I thought it was AMAZING…Santa is one cool dude!

  27. The first three years we did nothing for the kids in the way of presents because our family Christmas present was a trip back to the UK to be with all our relatives. Since then though we’ve been trying to keep things home made (for birthdays and Christmas). I’ve got two little girls that are 17 months appart, so I’ve been able to get away with making shared play gifts, which has been really great. This year I’m trying to squeeze in the time to sew up a set of rag dolls that are Miss Frizzle and all the kids in her class, and my husband is going to try and make a wooden magic school bus they can fit in, along with a set of Magic School Bus chapter books that we found at a thrift store. I just hope we have time to pull it off. I want to make the most of the time where the kids will be happy with this sort of stuff, because eventually I’m sure we’ll start getting requests for things that can’t be made at home. I do like the wear/read/play way you do things. Seems like a nice balanced way to do it.

  28. My daughter is too young to know about commercial gifts or brands, and I’ve decided to try to keep it that way for as long as I possibly can. If I don’t have the time or energy to make something, I try my best to ensure that our dollars are supporting something worthwhile, whether a cause or a start up creative venture.

    Along this line, here are a couple ideas for a 4-6 year old boy:

    The World Wildlife Fund offers symbolic adoptions for a variety of anaimals, like polar bears or emperor penguins. Each adoption comes with a plush toy of the adopted animal and a certificate. Check it out at:

    There is a great start-up creative here in Canada by a bunch of recent college grads called “Monster Factory.” It’s like a edgier, modern-day cabbage patch kid because each monster comes named with a card that explains their personality (my daughter has “Colin”!):

    Good luck… I can’t believe we’re thinking about Christmas already!

  29. i started this out loving me some of that car playmat idea, but …
    this is uh-mazing to read how diff families handle holidays humbly!
    ill keep these ideas inmind as my holiday rituals evolve & get reinvented.

  30. I second the MagnaTiles recommendation! We got my kids (now 7 & 5) a set about 4 years ago, and we’ve added 2 more sets over the last couple of years. It is the single best toy we’ve ever bought – so many possibilities! We make garages for trucks, play houses for dolls, towers, castles, swimming pools… While they are expensive, I think they are a great value!

  31. What wonderful advice here! And so timely! I was just thinking how I really wanted to reign it in with my five kids this year. I love the 3 gift policy. Perfect!

  32. Thanks so much for featuring our playmat, Gabrielle!
    This is a great question, and I’m finding lots to add to my shopping list as I read through these comments!
    Our kids each receive one gift from Santa. (Usually the “big” or special gift.) Plus “Santa” fills the stockings with several smaller toys and necessities. They also receive one gift from us and one from each sibling. We also have a large extended family, so they end up with plenty.
    I can’t wait to try the homemade sibling gifts this year!

  33. We do something similar with the 3 gifts because, frankly, the last thing my children need is more toys (and clutter!) This year, we are also getting a family membership/pass to a place that all our children really enjoy. We are asking for an annual family membership to the local children’s museum from their grandparents instead of toys. There are so many places our family loves to go, and so many memories to be made. Those memories will last a lot longer than the toys that usually wear out their welcome before the snow thaws in the spring.

  34. We also do the want/need/wear/read, and have added something handmade for the gifts we give to each other. Santa is very much downplayed, and brings one big gift that our twins have to share. (Two years ago, it was a train table. Last year it was the Haba Marble Run. This year I’m thinking it’ll be a dress up area in their playroom with fun costumes and props).

    We also do the “12 books of Christmas”, where we give the kids a new book for each of the 12 days leading up to Christmas. I collect the books throughout the year, often from garage sales or resale shops, and then we make a cash donation to a literacy-focused charity so that other kids also have the opportunity to read.

  35. On the one hand, I really like this policy and can understand how it would benefit many families. On the other hand, I think Christmas and birthdays can be a fabulous tool for restricting purchases at other times of the year. My mother made Christmas and birthdays a very big deal, and I’m not sure I would have traded it for the world. We never received anything the rest of the year…nothing at all. Not a box of cereal or something out of the quarter machine. We received our entire year’s wardrobe between these two holidays and everything else we needed for the school year and play. This meant we knew better than to ask for things at the grocery store and we never visited a toy or clothing store other times of the year. We knew better. I definitely see the upside of that. It made us value the holidays more and taught us to enjoy what we had during the other times of the year. We never asked for the latest toy, because we knew we wouldn’t get it and the things that stuck with us, we’d eventually receive at holidays and would then have better lasting power. I’m not sure what I’ll do with my own kids, but having been a nanny for most of my adult life, I know I’d do just about anything to avoid the “can we get that”. If that means a world class Christmas, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing! Are you all able to avoid these pleas for material possessions at other times of the year? Is there another solution? I do think that the 4 gift policy is a great thing to institute among relatives who may give gifts I, or my kids, wouldn’t necessarily appreciate.

  36. We try to give a meaningful gift to our kids at the beginning of Christmas, to help make the Holiday Season that much more special. Typically this usually consists a really nice advent calendar, or great Christmas classic books. I have already picked out this year’s gift to them… a beautifully illustrated book titled, “Santa & The Little Teddy Bear” by Peter John Lucking. I am so excited to give it to them… it is truly a magical book that consists of great Christmas stories mixed with Christmas carols… I also really love beautiful illustrations. These are the types of gifts my parents gave to me when I was little, and the ones that I seem to remember most.

  37. So many great ideas to ponder! I can’t wait for the holidays!
    One tradition around gift-giving that we started was a “gift” of some kind for those who have less than us or are in need. Could be a donation of pajamas to homeless children (there are LOTS of these kinds of programs all over the country), volunteering at a soup kitchen on a holiday or a food bank donation. I love to shop and find wonderful things for my family, but I also want my daughter to know from a young age that she is blessed and fortunate and that helping others is also a “gift.”

  38. We only give 3 gifts from us and one gift from Santa, and we haven’t really even done Santa presents yet, because our kids (9 months and almost 3) still don’t quite get it. The three gifts are symbolic of the wise men. If 3 was good enough for Jesus it’s good enough for them! They get a gift of wonder (what they really want, or a fun cool toy), a gift a learning (usually books) and a gift of practicality (something they need: clothes, etc.)

    This year we’re also starting the tradition of having our 2 year old find some things he could give away at the beginning of December so that we’re making room for new things and so that he can learn the value of giving.

    I love the playmat idea for a 6 year old boy. We just picked one up for our son at a yard sale for $8, and it came with 12 cars. It’s awesome.

  39. So funny to read this! My Dad has always said Christmas is a success if he gets one gift in each of your three categories. I didn’t know other people used the same criteria!

  40. To answer Kate – to avoid “please, may I get this…” please, we give our kids (6 and 9 year old) an allowance, help them budget. So answer to each “please …” – you can buy it yourself. By now, kids know the answer, consider it fair, and don’t generally beg.

    My 9 year old tends to spend everything, 6 year old, on the other hand, saved a substantial amount.

    Cloth and school/craft supplies I buy as needed. If there’s a book I want to read with them and it’s not available in the library – I order it. The rest is up to them.

    For Hanukkah, kids get 1 present on the first day, and $1 each day after. Plus gifts from grandparents, aunts and friends.

    For birthday – a gift from parents, plus gifts from grandparents , friends and family.

    Both Hanukkah and birthday end up being a lot of presents, so sometimes relatives join forces and get bigger items instead of a lot of smaller ones.

  41. Gabrielle I don’t know you but seriously girl you are BRILLIANT. WHat kid wouldn’t love that floor cloth. How on earth do you find so many cool things!?!

  42. A lot of times we give gifts of “things to do” instead of “things”. Like movie gift cards, tickets to an event/play/zoo, a family trip somewhere, gift cards to their favorite ice cream shop or restaurant… It makes Christmas last longer too, because we anticipate when we get to do that activity. It’s also the kind of gift I love to receive too. I always say to my husband, don’t buy me a sweater or gadget or anything… just take me somewhere fun!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top