Unpacking the history of the Christmas present
The holiday season always gives me lots of feelings, like joy, gratitude and a healthy wallop of mom guilt.
This time of year I’m constantly reminded that I’ve never taken my kids to Disney World, while everyone else seems to be planning their magical adventure. My mailbox overflows with catalogs full of toys my kids will toss aside by New Year’s Day, and if I close my eyes hard enough, I can visualize the money flying out of my wallet.
And it makes me wonder … what kinds of gifts do children truly remember? Do we have to spend loads of money on trips or “it” presents to make children happy?
“Kids more than anything really want your undivided attention, and it’s actually very rare that we give that to them,” said Glen Rock-based child and adolescent psychologist Dr. Anne Rothenberg, noting alone time is difficult because parents often have an overload of demands on their time and attention. “Experiences tend to be more meaningful and lead to longer lasting enjoyment than a toy,” she said, explaining that while material possessions can make us happy in the moment we buy or unwrap them, the thrill of the material gift often fades.
Rothenberg said parents may shy away from experience gifts because they understand that children enjoy the immediate gratification of unwrapping and discovering presents, and kids may not be able to connect an experience to being a gift.
“It’s probably not too exciting to simply tell your child ‘I’ll pay attention to you for Christmas’,” she said.
“A fun way to combat this is to give gifts related to the event and make a game out of guessing or discovering where they’re going,” she said. “Say you’re taking them to the Natural History Museum. Maybe wrap up a tiny toy dinosaur, a book about fossils and a picture of a taxi and make a scavenger hunt.”
A calendar with a big “X” on the date you’re going also allows the child to have a fun countdown, she said.
“You’ll have so much fun watching them figure out the experience that awaits them, and having something to look forward for kids is half the fun of gifts,” she said.
Giving your kid a gift to a Broadway show, such as the new musical “King Kong,” may seem like a great idea – but keep in mind that not every child likes the same things. (Photo: COURTESY OF MATTHEW MURPHY)
Rothenberg said that when you’re thinking about experiences, it should be tailored to the child, noting some kids won’t enjoy a crowded museum or a Broadway show.
“If it’s a gift for that child, it should be something specific to that child, even if you don’t think it’s a big deal,” she said.
For example, if the child has lots of siblings, Rothenberg said a special trip to an ice cream store or a park could be really special for them. The gift should also facilitate conversations and play, she said, so parents should choose experiences that allow them to engage and communicate with their child.
Further, the experience doesn’t need to cost a lot of money, she said, adding kids don’t need to sit in the best seats at sporting events or go to the biggest shows.
“If they’re spending time with you and they have your attention, that’s truly the gift and that’s what they’ll remember,” she said. “They’ll feel like they’re the most special kid in the universe because they went alone with Mom to the high school show.”
Other experiences she suggests gifting to your children are craft time together with a new art set or a copy of your favorite book from childhood to read together.
Children also can choose another child through a charity to buy gifts for, and you can shop together for those gifts.
“It’s a great opportunity to talk to your child about how not everyone has the same privileges. There’s a lot of teachable moments,” she said.
Another meaningful present for kids is a gift of classes doing something they love.
“You can wrap something small to have them guess what kind of class they’ll be doing,” she said, adding that communicates to your child that you value their passions and talents. “It’s not just going to the toy store and asking what does every 7-year-old want.”
As for Disney, or other grand adventures that you feel like you should be doing, Rothenberg said not to worry.
“Just because Disney tells us no childhood is complete without a trip to Disneyworld doesn’t mean it’s true,” she said, adding many people hate crowds or hot weather, or get really stressed out in places like that. “There’s nothing worse than being in a situation that you feel like you’re supposed to be enjoying and you’re not.”
Gifts should account for what works for your family and should reflect your personal values, she said, and not be given because it’s what other kids want.
Finally, Rothenberg said that if relatives want to use their gift as an opportunity to connect with your child, they shouldn’t give the gift as part of a parade of other gifts.
“If you want your gift to have an impact give it to them at a time where you’re not competing against other toys or family members,” she said. “If you do Hanukkah, maybe give one night solely to a grandparent, or for Christmas let aunts or uncles do gifts the day after Christmas.”
Sharing the joy of your children with family members is a special part of the holidays, she said, and if there are people in your life who love and want to connect with your children, try to find ways to enhance their holiday gift giving experience.
“We become anxious about gift giving around the holidays because so often it’s not about the gift, it’s about the pressure of imprinting your love and legacy onto a child, that you hope they’ll remember forever,” Rothenberg said.
But the best gifts, as the clichéd saying goes, truly are those things that money can’t buy, like time and attention. And that makes me, and my wallet, very happy.
Contact Jackie Goldschneider at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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