"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 she’ll 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 plenty, absent gratitude, usually makes us more unhappy.
But it is possible to fill our children’s deep longings. Not with excessive presents – which always leave kids feeling unfulfilled — but with the deeper meaning of the holidays and the magic of love. Here’s how.
1. Explain to your child that your December holiday is about “presence” or time together, not about “presents” — and then keep your promise! When she asks you to do something with her, 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 she.)
2. Manage Expectations. Ask your child to carefully consider his 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 he wants to read.
- A "together" present that you will do with him, like going to the zoo.
- A "giving" present that he can gift to someone else, like making cookies for the senior citizen home or stuffing stockings for kids in a shelter.
Want more surprise? Let him 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. Every day, do one thing to bring your family together, even if it’s just enjoying 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. Or write love notes of appreciation to each other, either anonymous or signed, and hide them around the house where they’ll be found. However you do it, let your child experience how giving love creates more love.
4. Model your values by prioritizing family activities that savor the deliciousness of your holiday. Minimize shopping and busy-ness and focus instead on 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. Find acts of kindness that your children can engage in, because when we act kindly toward others, it makes us happy inside. As you walk down the busy sidewalk or stand in line at the store, play a game with your child and beam a blessing of love to everyone you see. Think of each holiday activity — gift wrapping, baking, decorating — as a chance to connect and create a little more love in the world.
5. Give your child the experience of abundance in simple ways. You can let your kids revel in that feeling of abundance while still sticking with your values and your budget. If you’re gifting her with a trip to the zoo, print out a photo of her favorite zoo animal and a simple certificate, and wrap it, complete with ribbon. If she loves chap stick, buy four flavors and wrap each one separately. If you baked and decorated cookies together to take to all the older folks when you visited Aunt Sue, be sure to take photos. Then print out a Commendation for Generosity with his name on it, along with a photo of a happy Senior Citizen cookie-eater and your child, and wrap it with a ribbon and a cookie in a baggie. That will probably bring as big a smile to his face as a toy, especially when you regale everyone present with a story about how happy he made the senior citizens.
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. 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?