Answer: You're facing a situation that many parents encounter, especially as the holidays become more and more commercialized and the toys kids want become more and more expensive. I think the best approach is to tell your son exactly what you've told me: that you love him very much and wish you could give him what he wants, but such an expensive gift just doesn't fit your budget. Then you can talk with him about alternatives. For example, maybe he would like to receive a gift of money so that he can begin to save for the game he wants. If other relatives usually give him gifts, you might let them know that he'd like a contribution to his game fund this year. You also could encourage him to look for ways that he could earn money toward the purchase of the gift, maybe through shoveling a neighbor's walk or helping with household tasks. (In the long run, children often most appreciate the things they've worked and waited for.)
Perhaps if your son understands that the expensive game is out of the question, he'll come up with some less expensive gift ideas. It's helpful with children this age to let them know well in advance of the special occasion a realistic price range for the gifts they can expect. This is not to say that children won't still be disappointed that they can't have the number-one item on their wish list, but at age 11 they are usually mature enough to understand financial realities. And, although they may not show it at the moment, they probably will appreciate your honesty as well.
Your question raises a broader issue that most of us grapple with during the holidays: how to help children move beyond the greed and materialism that have come to dominate the season. As we begin this year's holiday season, we have a wonderful opportunity to engage our children in family activities grounded in a spirit of gratitude and giving:
A daily gratitude ritual, in which each family member names one thing for which he or she is thankful.
Time together to do craft projects, play games, read stories or watch videos that focus on the real spirit of the holiday.
A family service project through which you give someone else something to be thankful for. This might be gathering items for a food shelf, pooling allowance money to buy toys or books for children in a shelter, making treats to take to a nursing home or volunteering together at a soup kitchen. Whatever you choose, giving to others is a wonderful way to draw your family closer together and to put the material aspects of the holidays in their proper perspective.
Editor's note: Dr. Martha Farrell Erickson, director of the University of Minnesota's Children, Youth and Family Consortium, invites your questions on child rearing for possible inclusion in this column. You may fax them to (612) 624-6369 or send them to Growing Concerns, University of Minnesota News Service, 6 Morrill Hall, 100 Church St. S.E., Minneapolis, MN 55455.