Dear Dr. Debbie,
My husband and I have different visions of the gift-giving season. The family I grew up in had modest means as did my parents’ parents. Gifts were often home-made or were to be shared with siblings. Our mom guided us to make home-made gifts and cards for family and friends. She baked cookies for us to give to all our teachers, welcoming us in the cookie production as we got old enough. My husband’s family, at the other extreme, celebrates the holidays with piles of store-bought presents which now include brand new toys and new clothes for our two young children. My father-in-law customarily jokes about the bills coming due in January.
How do I instill new traditions that are more in line with my value system – frugality, charity, gratitude, and the value of spending time with loved ones? Last year I gave out home-pickled tomatoes from my garden.
Materialism, and the greed it fosters, just isn’t my jam.
Last Year’s Sweater Still Fits
It is doubtful that your husband’s parents would alter their gift-giving habits at this point.
Holidays invite us to replay our own childhood traditions, generation after generation. What you can do, in partnership with your husband, is to choose that which is at the core of your new family’s value system, making the best blend of two parents.
A gift of clothing symbolizes attention and care. Generally young children are not much interested in clothing unless it’s pajamas emblazoned with fire engines or unicorns. When a gift of clothing reflects your children’s interests they experience the value of being known for whatever is important to them.
In this vein, consider the practicality of a gift of clothing. A rough and tumble child may not get much use out of an elegant outfit. If a fancy ensemble is required for an impending event – maybe a multigenerational photo – accept the well-meaning gift graciously. Or if you’ve been instructed to purchase suitable outfits for the children yourself, use your inclination toward frugality to find something second-hand, and, once pictures have been taken, change the children into something more child-friendly. It might be best to put the clothes away until the children have outgrown them. Then sell them, or pass them on to younger cousins or to a charity.
Thoughtful gift-giving is a value you can continue to practice when your children are invited to a friend’s birthday party. Help them help you to choose gifts that are thoughtful of the receiver.
Give the gift of play by being parents who have an attitude of supporting it. This is priceless, by the way. Have you ever noticed that young children often prefer playing with the box a toy came in rather than with the toy itself? The explanation is quite simple. The simpler the toy, the more play value it has. Maybe the grandparents would like some suggestions?
Among the more playful toys are those that can be put together, taken apart, and put together in new ways. Think of block sets and re-usable modeling dough. Just as valuable are toys that invite pretend play – such as items of clothing and props that encourage children to play at being parents and community helpers. These items don’t even need to be bought – if you let them, your children will identify the things that magically turn them into mommies, daddies, doctors, grocery clerks, and yes, firefighters. That long piece of ribbon your little one found is perfect for your little firefighter to pretend with as she hooks it up to the kitchen trashcan (the hydrant, in her imagination).
Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek is a renowned expert on the benefits of play. She says, “The way I like to put it, the best toys are 90% the kid, 10% the toy. If it’s 90% the toy, and 10% the kid, that’s a problem.”
Hirsh-Pasek co-authored a report on the value of play for young children for the American Academy of Pediatrics. The report summarizes many research studies, based on hours of observation of children at play, and emphasizes the “critical importance of play in . . . encouraging the development of numerous competencies, including executive functioning skills.” The best toys inspire critical thinking and imagination. One observation: “a plastic cash register that produced sounds when buttons were pushed mostly inspired children to just push the buttons repeatedly.”
An empty box is a better option.
Generosity and Gratitude
Balance any conversation your children may be drawn into about what they hope to get with conversations about what they’d like to give. Include your children as you ponder, bake, preserve, pickle, craft, and wrap presents for your in-laws and others on your list. Let your children see and experience the joy in creating a gift of time and talents If they are old enough, help them gather up gently used books, toys, and clothes to donate to charities. Help them imagine an unknown child’s delight.
You can help your children to return the love implied by a gift – from the grandparents or anyone – with expressions of gratitude. Speak for them when they’re too young to speak for themselves. “She’s going to enjoy this so much!” “You really picked the perfect (fill in the blank) for him.”
The winter holidays, and any time of year, actually, can provide opportunities to model and guide generosity and gratitude.
You are also setting a good model when you and your husband set a budget for gift giving and stick to it. If your husband wants to spend more on presents than you’re comfortable with, look for ways to trim expenses on something else. And agree to the new plan.
Compromise, something in between what you envision and what he envisions, is an excellent tactic for family harmony.
Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum. She will be presenting Zoom workshops for parents, on Mondays 7-9 pm, January 9: Good-for-You Food Fun; January 30: Temperament Differences.
The museum is open with online reservations or call: 410-990-1993.
Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.