I have three young boys: ages 9, 6, and 4. We live abroad, in Indonesia, where kids play mostly outdoors with balls and sand toys, rather than plastic and electronics. Each year, we come to the U.S. for Christmas to visit two adoring sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. But this visit also comes with an extraordinary amount of advertising aimed at kids about what toys they need to have, an absolute fascination with Target (mine), and, generally, being overwhelmed with all the "stuff" we're suddenly faced with being prompted to purchase.

My husband and I are entrepreneurs, and one of our goals as a family is to raise kids who have the imagination, creativity, and space to think so they can create the world in their image.

Too many gifts--too many toys, in general--can stifle entrepreneurial habits in kids

Is it possible that these two parts of life--the desire to raise entrepreneurially minded kids and the desire to bask in the spirit of Christmas gift giving--are actually incongruent? Research by the University of Toledo would suggest so. This November 2017 study uncovered information that proves, scientifically, that the more toys a kid has, the less creative, resourceful, and focused he or she is--which are all traits that fully align with entrepreneurial thinking.

The University of Toledo study observed 36 children, 18 to 30 months old, as they played in a room with four toys versus a room with 16 toys. Here's what they found:

  • Creativity soared when kids played with only four toys. Have you ever seen a kid play with a box? The box suddenly becomes a boat, an airplane, a monster, a cat. Now, think through when you last saw a kid with five remote-control cars in front of them: How creative were they? The very trait that entrepreneurs need--the ability to imagine something out of nothing--is hard for kids to practice if they have too many toys.
  • Kids' focus increased when they played with only four toys. Unsurprisingly, when a kid is in a room with 16 toys, they play with each toy for less time. When they have fewer toys to play with, their play is deeper, more sophisticated, and more imaginative, according to researchers. Given that the ability to focus is key to success in business, giving kids that headspace early in life is integral.

Use frameworks to help limit and control the number of gifts your children receive

How do you make sure you're encouraging imagination, creativity, and focus, while still participating in the gift-giving season? Use a specific framework to limit gift giving itself. Here are a few examples:

  • Santa letters: For our kids' Santa letters, we print out a template that gives them the opportunity to fill in one item in each of these five categories: something I want, something I need, something to wear, something to read, and something for someone else in need. This helps manage the children's expectations--they expect up front that they will only receive one gift in each category. 
  • Secret Santa exchanges with family and friends: You can use similar approaches with relatives and friends (and give them simultaneously the gift of simplicity this Christmas too!). Do a secret Santa so each person only has to shop for one gift, put a cap on spend, and agree to limit buying to one item. I would also suggest encouraging experiential gifts from relatives, instead of physical ones.

And, if all else fails, two other ideas might do the trick: Rotate toys (take half of the toys and box them up, and switch them in and out); or get the kids involved by donating (ideally) or selling their toys. 

While it might seem difficult to turn the tide on what can feel like overwhelming pressure to fill your living room with lots of beeps and buzzes from electronic toys, as well as dozens of Amazon boxes, the holidays are actually the perfect time to reframe the spirit of Christmas and help your children reconsider their attitudes and expectations about this time of year.