Parenting·4 min read

Dr. Becky Explains Why You Can't Really Set Boundaries Around Gift-Giving

family opening presents
December 28, 2023

Setting boundaries is touted to be the silver bullet of compliance for parents. But as we know, putting this into practice IRL is a bit more complicated, especially with all those family and friend events coming up. Becky Kennedy (aka Dr. Becky), clinical psychologist and founder of Good Inside, explains the difference between boundaries and requests, plus how you can manage gift-giving and ways to communicate expectations with kids. Don't worry — it's all very doable.

First, are we even doing boundaries right?

Q: What can I say to family members if I have a boundary they disagree with?

A: Boundaries are what we tell people we will do, and they require the other person to do nothing. I’m not making my boundary’s success dependent upon someone else — that’s so disempowering. I’m communicating clearly what I will do if someone does something. 

There’s a difference between a request and a boundary.

Here’s an example of a request:

 “I want Nala to go to bed at 8 pm. I know everyone likes to stay up late. But I really need you [speaking to your mom who’s at the party] to put her down at 8 pm.” 

Here’s an example of a boundary: 

“Hey, it’s really important that Nala goes to bed at 8 pm. At 7:45 pm, I’m going to take Nala up, even if the other cousins are awake. I’m going to put her down, so I won’t be available for dinner until about 8:15 pm.” 

Got it. So when it comes to presents…

Q: How can I set boundaries around gift-giving? 

A: When it comes to gift-giving, we don’t have a lot of control. We can’t really set a boundary, but we can make a request. 

For example, you could say, “Hey, I’m hoping you don’t get Charlie certain items” or “We already have a million toys, we don't need more toys.” 

But we can ask ourselves a different question: “Do I want to make certain requests of someone else about gift-giving? What will I do if that request isn’t met?” 

I think when it comes to gift-giving, we do our best parenting by saying, “Maybe I can relinquish control, and if I do want to say anything, I have to remind myself it’s a request.” 

If you request they get a max of five presents, and that request isn’t met, then you have to consider your options. Do you hold a firm line and say, “You can’t open those other gifts.” Or do you say to yourself, “That was super frustrating. I’m going to have to think about what to do next outside of this moment.” 

OK. I got this. But then there are the kids....

 Q: How do I best communicate expectations with my kids regarding holiday activities and behavior?

A: One of the best things to do in advance of the holidays is to be extremely clear with your kids about what to expect. Kids don’t have a built-in calendar like we do, and often kids melt down because they’re just caught off guard, surprised, and not prepared for the schedule they’re expected to keep over the holidays. 

Get around this by being super clear about what’s happening and creating a visual calendar. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy — get one sheet of paper and make a box to represent the different days. Write in a few key dates (like the last day of school, going to Grandma’s for the holidays, or a two-hour drive). 

Put it up, and while you’re having dinner or passing by in the kitchen you might say, “Oh, two more days until we drive to Grandma’s — that’s going to be long.” Or “Four more days until the family holiday party. What is it going to be like to see your cousins?” This way, your kids know what to expect, and they’ll feel more in control, which means they act more in control. 

Featured Expert

Becky Kennedy, PhD

Becky Kennedy, PhD - Clinical psychologist and founder of Good Inside

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