"Television advertisements for toys and games often exploit children's underlying needs and desires. Many commercials show a child playing with a game or toy with her parents. The message is clear to young children: Ask for this product and your mother and father will pay attention to you. It is an offer they cannot resist." -- Lawrence Kutner
Worried that your child seems to get a bit greedy at the holidays? Consider that maybe something deeper is being triggered -- a longing for that happy, perfect life when your child will feel completely enveloped by your love. We adults have the same fantasy, of course. It's part of the wonder of the holidays -- that promise of transformational love.
The human mind has a tendency to crave more, more, more. Kids (like many adults) haven't yet learned how to manage those yearnings and direct them toward what will really fulfill them, which research shows is connection, creativity, contribution, gratitude and meaning.
Unfortunately, research shows that having lots of material possessions usually makes us value them less. When we aren't as grateful, we aren't as happy. So material abundance, absent gratitude, often makes us more unhappy.
But it is possible to fill our children’s deep longings. Not with excessive presents – which generally leave kids feeling unfulfilled -- but with the deeper meaning of the holidays and the magic of love.
1. Explain to your child that your December holiday is about “presence” or time together, not about “presents.”
Sure, there will be some presents. But that's not our focus and it's not what matters most. The miracle of Hanukkah had nothing to do with gifts. Or, as the Grinch famously discovered, “What if Christmas" he thought "doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas… perhaps… means a little bit more!”
And then keep your promise! When they ask you to do something with them why not leave the dishes in the sink or your email unanswered for now? Sure, you were going to make that homemade present or wreath, but if you can't do it with your child, who cares? (If you do it with your child, it won't look perfect, but you'll treasure it forever. As will they.)
2. Manage Expectations.
Ask your child to carefully consider their desires and tell you four gift ideas:
- A store-bought gift that is within your means (this may take some back and forth discussion).
- A book they want to read.
- A "together" present that you will do with them, like going to the zoo.
- A "giving" present that they can gift to someone else, like stuffing stockings for kids in a shelter.
Want more surprise? Let them give you two possible options for each. But discourage long list-making, which just stirs up fantasies that can't possibly be met.
3. Fill your child's heart by celebrating the love in your family and community.
Every day, do one thing to bring your family together and/or a small act of kindness for your community.
- Enjoy the twinkling holiday lights together in the dark.
- Go around the dinner table and share appreciations.
- Make a paper chain together, writing an appreciation on each link: Dad makes the best pancakes, Michael let me use his truck, Grandma has a beautiful laugh.
- Write love notes of appreciation to each other, either anonymous or signed, and hide them around the house where they'll be found.
- Find acts of kindness that your child can engage in, because when we act kindly toward others, it makes us happy inside. For instance, volunteer with your child in covid-safe ways, such as walking dogs for the local shelter or picking up trash in the park.
- Work with your child to write notes of appreciation to teachers, store keepers, crossing guards -- anyone in your community. Studies show that expressions of gratitude like this are good for the recipient's well-being, but also make the child who writes the notes happier for months afterwards.
- As you walk down the sidewalk or drive in your car, play a game with your child and beam a blessing of love to everyone you see. (Notice how great you feel after two minutes of this? That's because you're activating those feel-good love hormones!)
However you do it, let your child experience how acts of love create feelings of more love.
4. Give your child the experience of abundance in simple ways.
Yes, you can let your child revel in that feeling of abundance while still sticking with your values and your budget.
- If you’re gifting your child with a trip to the zoo, print out a photo of their favorite zoo animal and a simple certificate, and wrap it, complete with ribbon.
- If they love chap stick, buy four flavors and wrap each one separately.
- Document your child's acts of service and help them savor the gift of contribution. For instance, if you and your child picked up trash in the park, be sure to take a photo. When you print it out, add a Commendation for Citizenship and put it under your tree with a candy cane. Opening this envelope will probably bring a thoughtful smile to your child's face, especially when you regale those present with a story about how your child transformed that part of the park.
5. Allow your child to desire things without that meaning they "need" the item.
When your child says "I want that!" try responding positively, even if you won't be buying it: "That game looks like so much fun, doesn't it?" or "Oh, this stuffed animal feels so soft and cuddly, I see why you like it!" Often, this acknowledgment is all the child needs to enjoy their pleasure in the item without needing to pursue it. If your child does have a hard time putting the item back on the shelf, try the magic words "You wish..." as in, "It sounds like you really wish you could have one of those... I understand. I love the way it..."
6. Give your child the gift of playful responses to things that you’d normally get irritated about.
When she resists your instructions, be mock horrified. Scoop her up and throw her around, making a rambunctious game of it. Interpret every "misbehavior" as a request for loving connection: "Hey! Are you out of hugs again?!" (If you need to "teach" appropriate behavior, do it AFTER you connect.) This is one of the greatest gifts you can give your child. You’ll be so pleased by how much more cooperative she is that you might adopt this approach permanently.
7. Model your values by prioritizing family activities that savor the deliciousness of your holiday.
Minimize shopping and busy-ness and focus instead on living, with your child, the values that are part of your holiday.
- Read and talk about books on holiday themes.
- Have dinner discussions about your holiday and what it means to you.
- Open holiday cards together at dinner and discuss what you love about the sender.
- Think of each holiday activity -- gift wrapping, baking, decorating -- as a chance to connect and create a little more love in the world.
8. Minimize stress and fill your own cup...
...so you're in a good mood, living the spirit of the season and spreading love and good cheer. Pare back on your expectations and let go of the comparisons. Your kids don't want a magazine-spread holiday. They want you, in a good mood so your joy is infectious and you're emotionally generous when things go wrong (which they inevitably will). Prioritize getting sleep and taking care of yourself so you can give your child your best--not just what's left.
No matter what they think, kids don't need the latest toy or the latest electronic gadget. Those are just strategies they think will help them feel good. But you know the secret of how to find that feeling for real and make it last: it has to come from love, meaning, contribution, creativity, or gratitude.
Consider the memories your kids are shaping this December. When they look back, will they describe a parent who communicated the spirit of the season with laughter, warm embraces, gracious patience, joyful presence?
You ARE that parent, inside.
What kind of support could you give yourself, so that you can EXPRESS that parent, more and more each day?
What's the best present you can give your child? Peaceful Parenting!
Check out Dr. Laura's Online Course to support you in being the parent you want to be.