Magic happens this time of year, but this year feels a little different. Yes, it’s still December. Yes, my wife, Nancy, and I will try to make it special and fun for our daughters, 5½-year-old Dina and 2-year-old Ally.
This year, though, the obvious has become even more obvious, bigger and bolder than ever: Count your blessings. And do what you can to make the world a better place.
Doesn’t the experience of Hurricane Katrina show us once again that we should appreciate what we have—and that we are part of something bigger than ourselves? What happens when others are hurt or their lives are uprooted? How would we want them to respond if we were in need?
These questions come up often these days, and I find myself thinking about them as I try to set an example for my daughters. And yet, our culture—and yes, that includes this dad—sometimes gives kids a different message about the season.
Here we are in early December: The toys are back in town (not that they ever left). They are, of course, better than ever (at least that’s what the ads tell us). Our family is Jewish, so we don’t celebrate Christmas, but we are among those who do give presents to our children for Hanukkah. It’s as much of a winter tradition as family parties or making a snowman.
Still, the gift-giving ritual has gotten to the point where my oldest daughter, like most children I know, expects a small bounty over the holidays.
OK, I admit it: I come from a family with five kids, and there were years when the winter holidays were synonymous with an orgy of gift-giving. I don’t remember having complained about this as a 10-year-old. Not even once.
Still, as I watch TV with my kids and see how they respond to commercials ("I want that!"), I start to think that, well, maybe we’d be better off if we took another look at what this holiday season is about.
My wife and I have already toned down the gift-giving a bit. I also wonder more about how irrelevant the frenzy of this holiday season can seem. I am more annoyed than ever when that old standby, Barbie, reappears on the TV screen after what seems like a five-minute absence.
No, I don’t expect my kids to be watching "Meet the Press," but it can be tough to turn away all those messages that say "buy this now."
I later learn that the National Retail Federation says holiday spending will rise at a smaller rate this year than last year. This year, sales are expected to total about $435 billion. With that news comes hand-wringing by business and marketing experts—as if it’s somehow a national crisis that we’re spending less for various reasons, including the rise in charitable contributions.
Well, spending less on material things is not a national crisis.
This holiday season, I find it helps to have tools and resources that can break down the cultural message of "buy, buy, buy."
One such resource is the Media Awareness Network, a Canadian organization that promotes media and information literacy for young people. Its Web site, www.media-awareness.ca, includes information for parents. I call the network and speak to Jane Tallim, the group’s director of education. As a former teacher and the mom of three grown kids, she is quite used to the conflicting messages December can bring.
"It’s important to talk with children about the difference between ‘want’ and ‘need,’ " says Tallim. "Essentially, marketers are not aiming at needs—what they really aim to do is create ‘wants.’ They create things you don’t really need but make you want to have [them]. One way for parents to give children a sense of the importance of sharing and giving this year is to ask them to think about the kids who have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina. What is it these children need first? When kids understand that, the urgency of buying this toy or that one may not seem so great."
There are, of course, as many ways to enjoy the holidays as there are families. My family is doing many things this year. Yes, we are buying gifts for our kids, though not as many as usual. We also are donating toys or writing checks to charitable organizations. Mostly, we just like hanging out together.
At the same time, I’m trying to talk with my older daughter more often and see what she thinks about the holidays. Tallim’s comment makes sense to me, and I share her points with my daughter. Dina takes them in and seems to be thinking about the subject for the moment.
Later, Dina shows me what she thinks. As one of 18 students in her kindergarten class at Dawes Elementary in Evanston, she is finding that giving, sharing and respecting others are lessons to be reaffirmed every day.
Dina and I are at a school event when I see her join a bunch of kids who are drawing pictures at a table. I sit down and see that these children are making cards for victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Dina and the other students are coloring. My daughter explains to me that "these people got hurt, we’re trying to help them, Dad. We’re putting these cards in the box and sending them." She colors a couple of cards and drops them in the box.
Sure, I realize that this kind of thing happens all the time. Kids are doing this all around the country. It’s so obvious.
I don’t care about that, though. This is one of those moments with my daughter that will stay with me for a long time.
After all, magic can happen this time of year. This time, it has more to do with a gift my daughter gives than one she opens.
Dan Baron is an Evanston writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org