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I Want It Now!

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Last week, our family was driving through the city talking about our favorite parts of the holiday season. On my list was spending time with family, cooking, food, sledding, and decorating the Christmas tree. But when it got to my four-year-old son, his chart-topper made me cringe just a little: “That I’ll get a remote control car! Maybe Santa will bring it!”

It’s inevitable that little kids get excited about the gift-getting aspect of the holiday season, and that sometimes it can seem to trump all other details. But with all the shopping, the shiny wrapped presents under every tree, and the promise of highly coveted toys, a lot of parents worry that the focus on consuming and instant gratification isn’t so good for our little ones. Of course, the thrill and anticipation of gifts is natural, so how do you respect this tendency but still send your kids the right message about the true spirit of the holidays?

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Build brain muscle
The holidays don’t have to be filled with on-the-spot indulgence. If your child has taken to rattling off dozens of action figures or pointing to toy after toy as you walk down the store aisles, talk about the concept that gifts are limited and special, and we have to deliberate, plan, and choose thoughtfully — it’s good practice. The holidays provide a perfect opportunity for building up our kids’ fledgling skills at long-term planning, because they’re typically not picking something out for immediate consumption, but asking for it with a future date in mind. Help your child think about which toys she or he really wants and why.

Research shows that self-control is a good predictor of kids’ success in life, so there’s a lesson in helping our children understand how to manage their excitement for a future goal or date (say, Christmas morning). Talk about this with your child and prompt her to think of strategies for tiding herself over in the meantime: You really want that dollhouse, huh? It sounds like you’re super excited and you chose it above all the others! It’s hard to wait, I know. When I’m trying to wait, I do an exercise in my mind where I focus on exactly what I’m doing right now instead — what I’m reading, eating, or playing. It helps me put the excitement away for a bit and save it for later.

Give to others
Donating is a good way to shift the focus toward giving. Donate both used and unused toys through toy drives or even just by dropping a box off at the Salvation Army. When you do, talk about why you’re doing this, how it makes you feel good to make others happy, and how special it is to be able to give things to people who need them.

Skip naughty or nice
It’s almost impossible to steer clear of the naughty/nice language, because holiday songs and other family members can be chock full of it. But this isn’t a very helpful mentality for you or your child, during the holidays or any other time. Labeling your kid as good or bad is a sweeping judgment that doesn’t really carry any useful information. (Better to be specific about expectations, behaviors, and how they affect other people, or what specific rules have been adhered to or broken.) Try not to hold the promise of gifts over your child’s head to incite good behavior. Instead, talk about the true meaning of gifts: We give gifts because it’s a way to be thoughtful and do something special for another person.

Build up other traditions
If you feel too much focus on gifts from your youngster, build up the other aspects of the holidays to naturally put presents in their place. Trying to beat the gift mentality head-on might actually make it stronger — if your little one thinks you don’t understand her excitement she might work harder to show it to you. So come at it from another angle. Talk up the other components and focus on your enthusiasm for them: I can’t wait to go see the tree lighting; I love making snowflakes with you every year; or Let’s bake this weekend!

As I wrote in a recent column, holidays and traditions are really important to our kids’ happiness and well-being, so don’t let the focus on consuming deter you from harnessing the power of the season. Find a way to emphasize family togetherness instead. For me, even though it sometimes feels as if toys are front and center in my child’s mind, I know the special activities and meaningful rituals are what actually make the biggest impact. The gift excitement is temporary. The tree decorating, the singing loud, off-key carols while we drive around looking for lights, eating home cooked meals at nana’s — these are the memories he’ll take with him as he grows.

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