I Want You, I Need You, I Gotta Have You
Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be yet another parenting article on the consumerism of the holidays.
Oh wait. Yes it is.
I have said this before in my classes, but I will say it again:
We have to find the activist in ourselves to be a good parent.
Which is to say, if we want our kids to grow up to be people who value time and family and friends and nature and art and education and music and doing good deeds over things, then we have to actually do things that prove it. If we want them to take pleasure in the simple things – taking a walk, playing a game – we have to create an atmosphere that highlights the simple things.
I know, right? Sorry, but it’s true. Raising kids is not for the feint of heart or the ersatz uber parent or the hypocrite. It is, however, perfectly suited for the moderately lazy who enjoy afternoon TV and a box of Wheat Thins. Trust me.
When it comes to holiday gift giving, it can be worthwhile for us to do a bit of inner work. (One can easily be an exercise-eschewing, afternoon-napping sloth, but one must commit to a vigorous inner exercise regimen. We have to commit to thinking about what we do.)
We give our kids gifts for many reasons – some of them typical and predictable, and some of them a bit deeper in our psyches. It can be worthwhile to spend a little bit of time mulling that over. The more we understand why we do what we do, the more control we have over doing it.
The real trick to pulling off a homemade, gratitude-laden, Little House On The Prairie holiday is an authentic commitment on the part of the parents. Say you decide to give your kids fewer gifts. You can’t betray any feelings of guilt or apology or waffling while they are opening them. You can’t say, “Isn’t this fabulous? It’s the robot you wanted. Isn’t it the best?? Isn’t it totally better than getting two robots? Isn’t LOVE really the best gift? Let’s hold hands.”
Hence, first the inner work. You have to actually believe in the values you want your kids to think you possess. More bad news, I know. Raising kids is so hard. You have to actually examine your deeds and motivations. Not to mention you have to read The Napping House, like, a gazillion times when your kids are young and you are so freaking tired you just want to die.
I am not a fan of telling kids that we won’t buy them something because it’s too expensive. To me, that gives kids the message that if only we had the money, we’d buy it. No, the message needs to be, we can afford it but we choose not to buy it because we don’t need it.
We don’t need it.
Now there’s a statement worthy of daily affirmation, right?
It’s also a statement that doesn’t usually come to us until after we’ve argued with our kids for a billion minutes, like, “I said no! We don’t need it!”
And that tells our kid that we’re angry that they want it. Which is all kinds of confusing to kids. I mean, we all want stuff – that’s normal. We can’t shame kids for desiring the crap they desire. What we need to do, instead, is model for them that despite desiring the thing, we have to choose not to buy it because we have enough. We don’t need it.
Which brings me to your homework.
Sit down with your kids, all casual like so they don’t think they have been tricked into some kind of toy intervention, and pose this question:
What things do people want, and what things do people need?
Just let the question sit there if they don’t want to answer. A question possesses power that the answer cannot possess. (Elie Weisel’s quote, but I use it so often that I pretty much feel it’s my own).
When you’ve talked about want v. need with your kids, and when you model your own desire v. need moments, it can open wonderful – and not preachy – dialogue. It can begin to foster perspective and gratitude (although those are qualities that take many, many years to emerge), and it can begin to open your kids’ eyes to those who are truly in need.
Having this kind of discussion with your kids before the holidays can help us – the parents – clarify our values, as well.
So, do we only buy kids the things they need?
That’s up to you. Personally, I’m not that much of a dogmatic ascetic. I mean, I talk a big talk but my closet contains, like, 90% of the JJill catalogue. Even though I only need, like, 20% of the clothes I have.
I used to say to my kids, “we are so lucky that we can afford to also give each other some gifts that are just for fun.” That puts a positive, not guilt-mongering spin on getting presents. You know, so as not to fully suck the joy out of a fun gift. Which my grown kids tell me that I did to them. To believe them is to believe that WHILE they were opening their Chanukah presents of, say, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and SilverHawks, I was lecturing them on the starving children in Biafra. Fun times at the holidays in our house.
A parent in my class once said that her kids get three gifts at Christmas – one from Santa, one from parents and one from grandparents. I love that idea.
Three seems just about enough.
What do you think?
~Ann Brown is available for private parenting consulting. Please contact the school for her hours and fees.