How To Be A Minimalist When People Want To Spoil Your Kids

The idea for a post on how to be a minimalist (with a “generous” extended family) has sat in my ideas folder for quite some time, but as Christmas approaches, as well as a move, it seems an especially fitting time to reflect upon all the stuff that has accumulated in our lives, and all of the stuff that is yet to come. Note: if you know me and you think this post is written about you specifically, you’re wrong. This post is written about a lot of people just like you. 

First, the title ‘minimalist’ varies from person to person, so for the sake of this post, I’m going with the definition given at The Minimalists:

Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.

Life’s excess most often takes the form as STUFF. In an effort to not be STUFF focused, I try to only buy what we need or what I or my family can truly enjoy. Because there are seven members of this family all with different needs and wants, likes and dislikes, we still have quite a bit of stuff lying around. And while I’m known to cast away items with nary a second thought, there are the sentimentalists and hoarders hiding in the ranks of my home who carefully hide their treasures and keepsakes. I don’t impose minimalism on my family like a dictator, but try to model it the best I can. I also think the term minimalism is just the latest in a string of ways to make simple, intentional living trendy. So in a nutshell, I consider us minimalists (you might not) but we’re striving to live a life not focused on STUFF, but our faith, our family, and fun experiences we can share together. If you want to know how to be a minimalist, my perspective is one in many you should consider.

No one would joyfully admit to being a materialist; to loving things over their family or their faith. But just try to tell them they don’t need to buy gifts for you or your children this Christmas, and watch the horror slowly creep over their faces. As much as people say “Christmas isn’t about presents!!!!” Kids know, it really is all about the gifts under the tree. 

Through the years I’ve tried setting gift limits (please only buy the kids three presents each), dollar limits (please only spend $40 on each child), requesting experience gifts or museum admissions, or only putting a small amount of gifts on a wish list, all to varying levels of failure. Sometimes, people don’t care how you as the parent feel about gifts, or the meaning of Christmas. All they know is they want to buy your children presents and to hell with you. I’ve been told “Just accept the gift; why can’t you let someone do something nice?” I’ve been direct, straight forward and down right mean about our desire to reduce STUFF and keep the focus of the season on Christ, and all it does it create hard feelings and while perhaps less stuff on Christmas, there’s more gifts for Epiphany, Valentine’s Day, and huge baskets for Easter. 

I’ve read books on minimalism that insist as parents we control the flow of toys and STUFF into our children’s lives, and that if we just have calm, rational discussions with family and friends, they will stop buying us tons of cheap toys from China and instead buy us (in moderation!) tickets to the symphony, hand crafted jam from the local farmer’s market, and organic wooden Montessori toys. 

I’m here to say sixteen years after becoming a mom, the flow of stuff hasn’t stopped. The lesson I had to learn the hard way, which has actually softened my hardened heart, is that to most of these people giving gifts is how they show love. The bigger, the pricier, the deeper they go into debt buying these gifts, the more their love is expressed. If no gift is given, it’s like with-holding love. To tell such people not to buy gifts is tantamount to telling them to stop loving your child. To walk into a child’s room and see it packed to the gills with toys, books and knick knacks is a visual representation of how much that child is loved, and is viewed by such gift givers with a sense of pride. These gift givers eagerly watch children opening gifts and should the child wish to stop and take a break to play with a toy, they push it aside and instead shove another package in the child’s hand. There’s no such thing as too many gifts. They may also feel the need to make up for you and your spouse’s lack of gift giving; that somehow your children are suffering and that by practicing minimalism, you’re not showing your kids enough love. Learning how to be a minimalist is not achieved by changing other people’s long held beliefs.

I know that excessive STUFF cannot represent love, or happiness or security, but I also know that after many years of fruitless efforts, I cannot change how people are, and I am not willing to cut people out of my life simply because they prefer to express their love with STUFF, no matter how much it clashes with our parenting values. No amount of discussions, or other expressions of love, can convince these people that physical presents are not necessary when showing their devotion to your children. 

So, how do Tony and I raise children who are not spoiled or materialistic, when the gift giving of others puts practically anything and everything they want constantly within their reach? How do I raise grateful kids who are happy with what they have and not focused on getting the next big thing? Learning how to be happy with what you have, and finding out the satisfaction that comes from working hard and waiting patiently to earn something you want are valuable lessons in short supply in todays society. I’m not perfect, and I constantly second guess myself, but here’s a few things I’ve settled on on my journey of how to be a minimalist. 

how to be a minimalist

We pick our gift giving battles and set limits on items the children are not alllowed to recieve as presents and state them way in advance of birthdays and Christmas.

The kids know that no one, not even Santa, is bringing that gift. Friends and family know if those items show up, they will get returned- period. We try to choose a substitute item if possible, and provide plenty of other suggestions. We typically accept all the presents given (with the above caveat), but I will weed out unused items quickly no matter how new they are. (I’ve gotten rid of Christmas gifts still in the packaging in late January and no one was ever the wiser.) 

Tony and I don’t focus on physical gifts for the kids.

We typically do trips or shows for birthdays, and feast days revolve around special meals, traditions, and maybe one on one time with Papa at Mass. We give one family gift, like a board or outdoor game, for Epiphany. When we take trips we try to spend money on a nice meal out, or day trips, rather than souvenirs. 

Regardless of our financial ups and downs, the kids always get only three presents on Christmas from Tony and I, plus stocking stuffers.

Sometimes we’ve done big gifts like Kindle Fires, or a trampoline, but there have a been a couple tight years when I purchsed gifts at Goodwill or made them myself. Thank goodness we always kept it to three gifts! We never needed to take on immense debt to keep up appearences at Christmas.

The kids use their own money to buy presents for one another, friends, and family.

If they are low on cash, I provide them with chores to do to earn the extra spending money. They’ve learned how to give meaningful gifts that don’t cost much, or any, money,

We show love in other ways; time together, praise, helping them out- there’s five different love languages.

Even if yours is gift giving, a handwritten note, a special drawing, sharing a favorite book; there are lots of things you can give without spending a bunch of money. 

Money is not a taboo topic in our house and the kids are always welcome to ask us about the hows and whys of how Tony and I spend money.

We explain the realty of what it would take to have a larger house, newer cars, a large flat screen, etc. We talk honestly about the money we make, where it goes and what we’re saving it for.  Sometimes, we could have more and we choose not to, othertimes, that item is way out of our price range. Tony and I try to model how to be a minimalist and how to be intentional with shopping.  Most importantly, we talk about being thankful for what we have, rather than always desiring something new or “better”.

My older kids know that while lots of gifts are nice, they can only really enjoy a few well thought out items. They know that they can be honest with us and say when they didn’t like a gift, and return it without guilt. Returning or disliking our gift is not a rebuke of our love. They can part with items when they can no longer use them or want them. They are happy to donate them, or pass them along to the younger siblings of their friends. I think in a few years when they’re living on their own, each will purchase some of the items we don’t have in the house, and maybe keep them long term, but it’s not a constant battle between Tony and I and the teens over why we don’t have a TV or  XBox. I think they’ve accepted we’re not like other parents and while they don’t always agree, it’s not so miserable an existence that they complain about it. I also like to think they realize that even they live a pretty privileged existence over much of the world, even if they don’t have iPhones.

I realize this post might be for a very narrow sliver of my readers, but, I also realize some of you are struggling to raise your kids in ways that differ from those around you and it can feel like, even when you and everyone in your family is happy, you’re still the crazy ones doing the wrong thing. You probably can’t change the people who disagree with you (unless they sincerely ask you about your lifestyle choices and how to be a minimalist) and it’s not always practical to cut otherwise loving folks out of your life. Stick to your guns and find work arounds that keep the peace when possible. 


  1. Thank you for writing this! As a mom to much younger kids, I appreciate you sharing what worked and didn’t work over the years.

  2. Amen! We do 3 presents too. And while Grandma gives them more things than we do, she is great about asking permission and also doesn’t get offended if she doesn’t see those presents still in our house 6 months from now.

  3. Amen to this, Kelly. I’ve struggled so much with certain relatives over the amount and kind of gifts purchased for birthdays and Christmas, and have been frustrated when conversations expressing my wishes were blatantly ignored. I finally (passive aggressively…) put the Amazon list I had made for my girls on private. It’s hard when someone’s expressions of love feels like it’s overriding your role as a parent. Thank you for these tips!

  4. Thanks for this! We have a toddler and one on the way and this year is the first year we’re doing gifts for the toddler. We’ve decided that we want our family tradition to be three gifts per kid and even though this is the first year we’re doing it, I already feel like a crazy person! It’s helpful to hear how it’s been beneficial to your family over the years and that it’s really ok to be different than other families. Wishing you a peaceful end of Advent!

  5. When my kids were little I would fight this so much and now I see it’s not worth it. Like you said some people need to give gifts. I made it too much about myself over the years that when I stepped back it made my holidays so much better. The funny thing is once I quit making a big deal about it the over giving has slowed down.

  6. Just wondering here: what types of gifs did you ban from your house completely, and how did you get the ban to actually stick with your (well-being but misguided) family?

  7. YES!!!! I appreciate reading this so much. We don’t even give gifts to our kids most of the time-they have so many things already. They’re only 2 1/2 and 3 months old, so they aren’t really aware that some people get piles of presents. I’m very grateful that all of my talk about minimalism seems to be holding back some of the gifts-that-could-be (at least this year!) though this whole arena is still a bit of a struggle. I think it is so awesome that you and your husband are cultivating an attitude and environment where your kids are free to dislike, re-gift, or donate something. For years, I felt obligated to keep certain gifts that I didn’t want or use just because a loved one gave them to me. Thankfully I’ve mostly moved beyond this, though it’s still challenging when it comes to the expectation that other people have for your kids to keep their gifts indefinitely. While it’s important to let people love (and, as you pointed out, this is how some people show their love), it’s also important to not let your lives be overwhelmed and consumed by what they want, instead of what’s best for your family. Such a tricky, tricky issue.

  8. Such great advice! Thank you!! I’ve struggled also with my *own* desire to give my children gifts – knowing how much they would enjoy a particular thing – but feeling like the gifts from other people crowd out the space for what I want to give to my kids. I so appreciate your perspective on the motivation behind gift-giving. Sometimes I feel like the unspoken message of minimalism is that the “holy” thing to do is refuse to let people give your kids gifts, which is certainly twisted and doesn’t honor the heart of those who just want to bless our kids.

  9. This is great, Kelly. Solidarity from a fellow minimalist mom of many. I only bought 3 or 4 gifts per kid this year (and some from Goodwill) and it still feels like too much. because that’s like 20 presents to wrap! My oldest is a consummate sanguine and materialist extraordinaire. Even at the tender age of 8, he’s asking for a camera drone and an Xbox. He goes to a technology free classical school, and we don’t even have a tv in the living room unless it’s a football Sunday. I can already feel how much fun adolescence is going to be…

  10. I sooooo appreciate this post. Thirteen years into my own marriage, this has been a topic on my mind a lot, since I married into a over gifting family. My husband and I constantly repeat to each other – “relationships are more important than things” – for some minimalists that might be a call to have less, but for us it is a reminder that our relationships with his family are more important that all of the many, many gifts that they give us, which means not refusing the gifts.

    I have read many blog posts and articles with ideas about how to ask for experiences, or non physical gifts, and these always say that grandparents and other relatives will be happy to comply……not in my experience. Gift giving as a love language does not have to just mean many, many toys (or things), but with several gift givers it does. I love that you actually address this, instead of pretending that it works to just limit the gift givers.

    So now in our immediate family we give our children experience gifts for Christmas, and maybe one physical gift, plus a stocking, and that is it. It is not a perfect compromise, but it works. And all of their wish lists get fulfilled by their Grandma, and we don’t try and fight it any more. We also have the rule of keeping a present for a year, and then getting rid of it if it is not being played with anymore. We also keep half of their toys in storage at a time, and then pull them out every several months and switch them around. I wish that we could be more minimal without these steps, but that is where we are at.

  11. Thanks for posting this! These thoughts have been on my mind as well. My husband was born and raised in a country where gift-giving is a much more common way of maintaining and strengthening relationships. Once we traveled to a destination with them and I felt like my MIL spent the entire trip looking for and buying souvenirs to bring home! It drove me a little bit bonkers to see her loading up with so much STUFF, but as you said, each little bit of STUFF was actually a message to her friends and family and home that she was still thinking of them during this trip.
    My in-laws still live in a foreign country and I realized that asking for “experiences” would just reinforce to them how far away they are from their grandson. It wouldn’t make them happy to know that their grandson was going to the children’s museum in April when they hadn’t seen him since December, for example. Whereas I think the existence of a physical toy does help them feel more connected, like the toy is standing in for their absence.

  12. Argghhh … I’m a grandmother now, and when I think of all the stuff my kids were given as over the 30+ years of raising them, I realized during the college years that a small trinket with a college-savings-account money would have been far better appreciated in the long run. Kids buried in toys while growing up … followed by being buried in debt after college feels so very wrong to me. So, as grandmother, I give my grandchildren one small toy, a dollar to light a candle at church, and a Savings Bond … to be used for college/trade school exclusively. My grandchildren have never accused me of being cheap and love their small gifts!
    When we travel … my husband came up with the idea of postcards for the grandchildren. They LOVE receiving these postcards in the mail! And postcards don’t take up so much room in a house!

    A Minimalist Strategy for Advent:

    Thanks for the nice post!!!

    1. I wish you were the grandmother to my children. 🙂 Love your approach, and hope to remember it should I ever become a grandmother. My mother and MIL both tell me I’ll feel differently as a grandmother, that I will want to buy lots of things, but…nope, I don’t see it happening.

  13. Thank you so much for this post! My (young) children have birthdays that precede Christmas by 1 week to 2 months, and by January 1, I am already contemplating what extreme measure I’m going to take for the next gift-giving season. Just last week, I was considering a manifesto detailing the environmental effects of things, how most of these toys are going to end up in the dump and can’t be recycled, the spiritual dimension, why-can’t-you-just-donate-for-college, how our children would rather be doing “real” things (e.g., they don’t want to play in the toy kitchen, they want to use the real kitchen) and a mantra of “buy only toys that you think will survive to be played with by your great great grandchildren”. Even my husband and I are somewhat at extremes – I bought our oldest got a better knife for working in the kitchen with me, and I bought our youngest a water bottle for Christmas, while husband got the cheap China plastic toys. I should probably revisit this post during the Christmas octave every year to lower my blood pressure and talk me down from doing something rash.

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