What do you wish for when you give a gift to your child? Do you want them to explode with delight when they open the paper? Do you want to see them at their happiest moment? Do you want to be able to fulfill your child’s intense longing for something they really, really want?
What do YOU GET out of giving such a thing? It behooves us as parents to separate our own desires from those of our children, and importantly, to distinguish between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. One thing your child truly needs is to build the capacity to feel fulfilled from within, as opposed to depending on a string of experiences or objects that create a feeling of temporary happiness. True fulfillment is only possible as a result of strong attachments to her parents, and from real accomplishment that propels development. This is very, very different from learning to soothe feelings of emptiness or incompleteness with external things or stimulation.
Holidays and birthday parties can become wound-up orgies of excitement, orchestrated by us as parents to push all the buttons that will make us, in turn, feel like such winners! If anything, our true obligation to our kids is to guide their development so that they don’t grow up expecting a bigger, more impressive and surprising circus with every celebration.
It might surprise you to know that the thing your child really wants more than anything is more moments of your complete attention. You can give this in endless ways and unlimited amounts – there is no danger of spoiling a child with your attention. Choose gifts that allow you to connect deeply with your son or daughter, or that encourage attentive time with a grandparent, aunt or uncle.
Resist the temptation to give electronics at times when there are a lot of other gifts. These should always be controlled by parents anyway, and giving them as outright gifts to children sets the stage for conflict about how you monitor their appropriate use. By and large, video games, tablets and phones are things that increase our kids’ tendency to isolate and separate from us. It might feel in the short term like they buy you a bit of precious peace and quiet, but we pay the price for that down the road when habits become hard to break. For gifts, choose old fashioned board games instead, the kind you probably played when you were a kid. Every child should learn Checkers, Chess, Snakes and Ladders, and Monopoly. Card games are great as well, and a visit to a small independent toy store will yield lots of good ideas.
Model building and puzzles are wonderful activities for a child to share with a parent. Another way to incorporate parent-child time into the holidays is to have a policy around gifts that encourages home made items. You can then spend time creating pictures or other crafts to share with grandparents, cousins, etc.
Visit a bookstore and find one or more large coffee-table style books or magazines about a topic of interest to your child such as rocks, trains, ballet, castles, outer space. Sit quietly next to them as they turn the pages and tell you what they see, what they like, what they know lots about. This was always a favourite quiet activity at my house.
One newer game that is adaptable to every age is Bananagrams. Similar to Scrabble, but without the board, a bag of tiles is shared between players who just make words that connect with each other. There are a million ways to do this, but it makes a wonderful after dinner family game for any stage of literacy, from learning the alphabet to sophisticated adult play.
A final piece of advice for parents who share my desire to make the special day seem ‘fun’ enough: Imagine what you really want to see your kids doing for the rest of the day, and make sure you include something to encourage that very thing, and allow yourself time to participate in making it happen. Presenting funny items in unexpected packages is a lovely way to extend the pleasure of unwrapping gifts at Christmas or other holidays without falling into a morass of excess. I once wrapped up a box of sugary, colourful breakfast cereal as a gift, which was received with delight because it’s something I would never dream of bringing home any other time! Socks or pyjamas can be squashed into cylindrical wine boxes, jewelry or stickers can be wrapped inside a towel or blanket. Make sure to take turns unwrapping so that everyone can experience all the surprises, not just their own.