If your young teen’s holiday wish list gets longer or more extravagant each year, you’re not alone. As kids increase in age, so do the prices and complexity of their toys. Combine this with the power of advertising, store decorations starting in September and the cultural illusion that more is better, the spirit of giving doesn’t stand much of a chance against the desire for getting.
Your child’s “I want” mentality isn’t increasing because they got an extra “selfish” gene, or because you have done a poor job of parenting. Most young teens have not yet learned that happiness comes as a way of life, not as a byproduct of material possessions. Most of them have not yet experienced the tragedies or responsibilities that teach us to value a sunset over a Play Station. And, most of them do not yet understand that true beauty is on the inside, instead of in the clothes, hair, jewelry and cell phones that advertising claims.
The get-more-now message is a powerful one, coming at us all from many angles, and rarely countered with an equal share of time from the other side. As a parent, you can contribute to balancing these messages by what you say and do in your own home. Try some of the following suggestions this holiday season to foster a more giving atmosphere: • Keep a gratitude list. Put it on the fridge, the basement door or the bathroom mirror, but make it accessible to the entire family. Hang a large piece of paper and writing utensil with the words, “Things to be Grateful for—December 2004” at the top. Then, start your list. Write down anything and everything that comes to mind. That may include good grades, a puppy who no longer has accidents, the beauty of the sky, love, tuna surprise—whatever makes you smile. Encourage all family members to add to the list as they notice the good in their lives. • Give from the heart. Ask for at least one holiday gift to each person to be something that cannot be bought in the store. A back rub, a chore done, a walk together, a compliment . • Daily grace. Saying grace before a meal is a lost tradition for many families, but an updated version can put us back on the gratitude track. Ask each person at the dinner table to tell one thing that happened during the day that they’re grateful for before the meal begins. Then have a toast to all the good in your life. • Become conscious of the incoming messages. With your family, count the number of commercials you see during any one half-hour show. Notice how many tell you that you need something they have to offer and talk about how real that need actually is. See if you can find any ads that encourage giving rather than getting. Try turning off the TV when the commercials come on, and see what it feels like to make a choice about what you actually need. • Give up a gift. Ask each family member to choose one holiday gift that they receive this year to donate to charity. If possible, give the gift personally to a neighbor or a child in a hospital. • Jingle the pot. Keep a change jar or purse in the car this month and ask each family member to feed it with their extra coins. Then carry it along each time you go into a store with a Salvation Army Santa and let everyone have a chance to throw a donation in the pot. • Give to the community. Make a list of all the people who work for you regularly throughout the year—waste collectors, mail carriers, librarians, teachers, crossing guards, firefighters—and give something back to them. Make ornaments, bake cookies or write thank-you notes to hand to them during the holiday season. • Be neighborly. Together as a family think of a person in your neighborhood who could benefit from your help. Present them with a gift of snow shoveling, a home-cooked meal, a friendly visit, a house-cleaning or anything else that might warm their winter day. • Give secretly. Make an agreement that during the month of December each family member will do something kind for each other without telling the other person. Clean a bathroom, bake a cake, wash a car, give a flower—but stay anonymous. • Appreciate each other. Put each family member’s name at the top of a piece of paper and into an envelope, and pass them around before your holiday celebration. Each other member will write what they sincerely like or appreciate about that person, then pass it on to the next person. At your holiday dinner, either read the lists aloud or simply give them to each member to read alone.
Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 21 and 25. She can be reached at (847) 782-1722.