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24 Nov 2010

A Parent’s Guide to Giving at Christmas

24 Nov 2010

I was down at the supermarket this morning and passed by a shop selling Christmas stockings. At least, that’s what we used to call them. The new term “Santa Sack” seems more appropriate. These were so large that if you put them on the end of the bed the child would have to sleep on the floor. Holy cow! How many presents were these kids expecting?

When I was a child, my mother literally put out a stocking. A lady’s fine white stocking – as in one that you’d put your leg in. On Christmas morning it was full of whatever goodies would fit in there, complete with a juicy orange at the bottom. What joy there was having to reach in, up to your armpit, stretching deeper and deeper to get the next present. There was anticipation and a slow unwrapping, simply because you could only grab one at a time. So each present was hunted for and highly valued. It was as exciting as it gets.

Now, looking at those mammoth sized Santa Sacks, how can we as parents complain how expensive it is to entertain a child when we ourselves are the ones that set their expectations?

I wondered this when I had my first child and thought, what if I just gave him a little stocking? Would he care? Would he compare notes with the other children at the Day Care Centre? The answer was no. He was excited by the magic of something arriving that wasn’t there the night before. He was caught up in the story of a stranger – albeit a nice one – being in his bedroom and leaving him something.

And, as my two boys grew, yes, the stockings got a bit bigger, but neither ever complained that someone else at school got more than them or that they didn’t get enough. The magic was still there.

Through the year I visited several of the boys’ friend’s houses, where the parents had bought so much stuff for their children you could barely see the floor. Every room in the house, including the hallway, had the walls lined with toys. And what was the child doing? Watching television or kicking a ball outside. They had so many choices that they valued none of them.

What would you give such a child as a treat for Christmas? How much do you really need to give them to keep them happy? Were they unhappy in the first place? And, more importantly, why are you giving it to them? Did they demand it like the little rich girl in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or are you making up for the lack of time you offer them within your heavy schedule?

If they are demanding, it is because you have educated them that being demanding works. They’ve learnt if they whinge about it often enough you will give in. You can change that from today onwards. Don’t fight the whinge, just smile and say you’ve already answered that question so there’s no need to repeat yourself. If you make this your habit the whinging will decrease.

If you are trying to cover for the lack of time you spend with them, believe me, it’s not working. No amount of toys will replace an insect hunt around your local park, baking some cookies together, a tickle session or a decent length bedtime story. Making the time for these things is what a child values most.

So what does spending this time with your kids really cost you? A favourite television program you could record and watch later. An extra hour answering emails that a more efficient auto-reply system might save you anyway. A sleep-in which wouldn’t be necessary if you cared better for yourself on a daily basis and reduced your stress levels.

Try listing all the so called “costs” and then think broadly about how you can make changes that would benefit yourself as well as them.

So what can we change?

Expect little: Show them you can still be happy without a massive hoard of Christmas presents. When you’re happy and having fun, they are happy.

Expect big: Teach them they can expect big things from what they make themselves. It builds their self confidence, teaches them planning and patience; and eventually makes them less dependent on you. Even when you have plenty of money, the benefits of creating or inventing are huge.

Their expectations are influenced by you and what you set out for them as an example. Distracting them from old expectations by providing your love and attention will become far more valuable in building strong family bonds and a low maintenance child.

PS – If your Christmas stockings have shrunk for financial reasons and you want to continue to spin the Santa story, perhaps one of the reindeer hurt his leg, or another is pregnant, so they can’t carry as many presents for everyone this year!

Enjoy your Christmas.

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