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By Tomm Larson

When the kids watch cartoons, the little lifeless lumps animate every time there's a commercial.

"I want that, I want that," rings through the house whenever a new toy shows up on the TV screen. As we drive down the street, several silver concussion machines roll by and the kids decide they need a scooter. When the boys come home from the neighbors they decide they need another excuse to sit catatonic in front of a monitor, so a video game machine makes the top of the list sent to Santa.

And I thought I had it bad. I saw a poor guy on a news program the day after Thanksgiving buying eleven (yes eleven!) televisions and eleven VCR's because all of his kids (yes, eleven!) wanted TV's for Christmas. Poor guy, I hope his bank account survives.

My wife and I decided the best way to keep our life savings off life support is to refuse most of our kids' requests at Christmas time. Funny thing is, after Santa comes, our kids don't really notice all the things he didn't bring. Christmas morning the kids find a pile of fun waiting for them in the living room and they forget about anything they asked for that wasn't there. Even our Glum Gus, who's disappointed when he doesn't get a present on his sister's birthday, is happy with his haul.

This does take some advance work. Well before Thanksgiving we peruse the bank and credit card statements and decide how much Yuletide bleeding we can live with. When we're really on the ball we set a Christmas spending limit before Halloween.

Then we take our gaggle of fun-junkies to the toy store and see what attracts them. My parents always gave us a Christmas catalog to leaf through until every page was creased. The older kids were given a dollar limit. The younger ones (who couldn't read dollar signs) were steered away from high priced toys. Some parent-to-child marketing then took place, extolling the fun of less expensive playthings.

When we have an idea of what the kids would like, we buy the gifts EARLY! This gives us time to talk up the toys, find out what assembly's required, and it locks us into a present. That way, Mom and Dad aren't swayed when little minds change every thirty seconds.

Our children know that Santa gives them one gift, Mom and Dad give them one gift, and they draw names for the intra-family gift exchange. We tell them flat-out, we won't buy them a gift that's too expensive or inappropriate for their age.

For the ones who recognize their parents as the Scrooge team and have much more faith in Santa's ability to deliver, we explain that he knows which toy will fit them best. We tell them it may not be number one, two, or twelve in that note they've sent to the old elf. We also help them understand that Santa doesn't like greedy kids. We let them know Santa does love to surprise kids, so he may think of something they haven't.

We also explain what makes Santa so great. He's figured out the best part of Christmas GIVING. We try to help our little takers share Santa's joy in serving and giving.

We give them each ten dollars (or some other pre-determined amount) for the family gift exchange, so that they actually take some time during the season to think about someone else. Of course the six-year-old thinks the best gift for her brother is a new dolly. After reminding her only 25 times or so that she should find something that makes him happy, she does figure it out and looks for a racecar or a football jersey. When Christmas morning comes she's more excited to see him open his present than she is to open her own.

Of course through all this we have to keep reminding ourselves of a few salient points. The eight-year-old's survival does not depend on a high-priced, over-hyped video game machine. The six-year-old will not be emotionally scarred if she doesn't get the collector's version of that dress-up doll. The two-year-old, well the two-year-old would be happy with a half-inflated balloon. Anyway, we tell each other WE are the parents, and WE'RE in charge at our house. If we hear complaints, we just offer to send the toys they did receive back to the North Pole.

That may sound harsh, but our children still love us, and we love them. Limits and boundaries help them feel secure. Our job as the grown-ups is to help our kids grow up to become normal, well-adjusted people that don't feel like they need the latest and greatest of everything - adults who recognize giving as the best part of Christmas.

I didn't really feel much of that joy until I spent more of the holiday season worrying about the gifts I would give, instead of the gifts I got. That's a joy I want my kids to share, and if it means I have to set limits, or tell them Santa's not bringing a pony, that's fine with me.

So our system works like this: Start early, set limits, help the kids develop expectations in line with the limits, find opportunities for the kids to give, remember who's in charge, and remember you don't have to spend hundreds of dollars (or even ten dollars) to show your kids you love them.

Here's hoping you and your children can have a joyful, giving Christmas!
__________________
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