"Did you buy my Christmas present?" was the first phrase out of my darling daughter's mouth this morning. There will be presents under the tree, but like many families in Year 2 of the Great Recession, we've really cut back. Christmas, yes; extravagance, no.
That leaves parents like me wondering how to give our children a wonderful holiday at a time when the kids too often think that the occasion is defined by the presents. We have to deal with not just our children's expectations and disappointment, but our own. I remembered a conversation I had at this time last year with Mary Alvord, a psychologist in Rockville, Md. Her advice is even more apt today because one third of kids ages 8 to 17 say they are more stressed out now than they were a year ago, according to a poll on kids and stress issued last month by the American Psychological Association. And 30 percent of the children polled worry about their family's financial situation.
"Disappointment is one of those life lessons we all need to learn," Alvord said. But I don't want to sound like the Grinch! To make the point that Christmas isn't a guaranteed lootfest without sounding stingy, try a phrase like this: "This year, like any other year, you might not get everything you want. We know that's hard, but you just have to be realistic. We do the best we can."
And if you can't give you kids the Uggs or the Wii, think about what wonderfulness you can give. Here are four nontangible family gifts:
- Start a new holiday tradition. It could be as simple as going to a favorite park together, singing or making music, or playing a game that appears only in December. "Whatever the holiday may be, for the next two weeks, our country is in the holiday season," Alvord told me last year. "Celebrate what you do have, not what you don't have."
- Play together. A family run, sledding outing, or pickup basketball game can become a cherished tradition. My family just used the record snowfall to build an igloo together. Maybe the igloo will be a traditional holiday project for years to come (snow permitting).
- Help others. Altruism is not only the essence of the holiday spirit; it's clinically proven to be a potent antidepressant. Invoke the spirit of the holiday by doing volunteer work, helping a neighbor, or sharing cookies. (We're still working on sharing toys.)
- Be grateful. You don't have to watch It's a Wonderful Life to know that it's the intangibles that really matter: health, hope, love, family, and friends. No matter how dire our financial situation, we are still blessed.
Last December, I wrote about old friends who were spending the Christmas holiday far from home, in a rented apartment at Duke University, where Roye, the dad, was undergoing a stem cell transplant for leukemia. Despite everyone's valiant efforts, the leukemia returned. Roye's wife, daughter, and son now face their first Christmas without him. Their loss is a powerful lesson to me to appreciate my real treasures. As Roye wrote last December: "Love your family and friends, because they will make you feel better faster than any ... medical cures. You need the medical cures, but you just can't beat that Love Thing."
Here's wishing us all more of that Love Thing, no matter what struggles we face.
Wondering how to talk with your children about tough times? My colleague Lindsay Lyon explains how you can tailor financial bad news so it is age appropriate for kids.