Halloween is when the first inklings of holiday music appear but Thanksgiving is the true ready-set-go that unleashes the December frenzy. Many parents feel powerless to do anything but go with the status quo flow.
Long before families tire of turkey leftovers, children begin to make lists of things they want; some children don’t even ask, they demand. Goods are chased down, put on credit cards then wrapped and put under the tree. This is all done as a family ritual – a tradition – begun long ago to make people happy and spread joy.
In January, though, the advertisements show up for loan consolidations and bankruptcy to deal with credit card debt from spreading too much cheer. Even before Thanksgiving, the commercials begin for diets and weight-loss pills, exercise machines and health clubs, all from overindulging and overspending.
The ones at the center of all this madness are the young, watching and learning as they grow their wants list and look through catalogs to see what the TV might have missed. Before THE day arrives, anticipation builds in their minds, dreams of how it is going to be. The day after all this, with the paper and ribbons headed to a landfill and the presents stacked high, many children wear a look of disappointment. Is that all there is?
Teaching children gratitude is a paradox; it’s both easy and difficult at the same time. Parents want to give their children more than they had as kids and I understand that, really I do. But resisting the urge to buy our children the latest gadgets and toys is very hard. What is even harder is the media pressure to shop and spend; there are sales, markdowns, in-store specials and Black Friday that has almost become a holiday tradition on its own. According to the retailers, though, to “save” incredible amounts of money you must first spend money. Resisting the coercion can be exhausting since it follows you at home, on the Internet, in your car radio and on billboards.
According to what I have heard and read, the number one way to teach children gratitude remains… give children less material goods.
Remember, it is not about not celebrating, it is about taking control of the amount. To make the situation easier parents can prepare their children ahead of time. Decide the acceptable dollar amount for each child and then stick to that amount. When children are young, the real challenge, though, may be relatives who insist on giving too many presents. The older a child is, though, the harder it may be for parents since the pattern has been set; for this child a discussion of values and what parents aim to teach should be in the forefront.
No matter how parents go about giving less, turning off the media would slow the pressure to shop and buy. Finding activities for the entire family like volunteering and community service can teach gratitude and also create lasting memories.
Our family ended the gift giving to anyone outside the four of us when Chelsey was about four and Katie was a little over a year old. We bought modest presents and gave them the morning after our family sleepover, Christmas day. Many relatives were skeptical and gave the kids gifts anyway but for the most part, they eventually understood our goal and let go. The first thing I noticed was our stress levels lowering; next was watching other people still caught up in the gifting frenzy.
Realizing the need to fit in, Chelsey and Katie were given the choice in high school whether or not to buy gifts for their school friends. What I noticed was that they only gave a few gifts and the gifts they did give were more meaningful. Now that they are adults, whether they give gifts or not is entirely up to them. I am glad, though, that they will have the experience from our perspective.
Whatever other parents do is a matter of personal choice of course, just like ours was. There is no single, absolute right or wrong answer. I am interested, though, how other parents teach gratitude in their families.