One of the great joys of Christmas morning is seeing the look of rapture on your child’s face when they open the perfect gift. As parents we want our kids to have that pure joy of getting exactly what they want on Christmas morning. It’s a wonderful feeling for us as well.
But what about when things go wrong? When instead of being happy, our kids are cranky or rude? When they’re ‘entitled’, or disrespectful or ungrateful?
Maybe they didn’t get the exact Lego they wanted, or perhaps their brother got one more present than them. This kind of behaviour doesn’t bring on feelings of joy. It makes us cranky. Sometimes parents say, “Fine, no presents at all for you next year. That’ll teach you.” (But it won’t).
We want them to be happy but we also worry about raising them to be spoiled. One of the challenges of the prosperous society we enjoy is that it can increase materialism – and that’s bad for kids, and bad for us.
Materialism isn’t just the desire for money, though that’s part of it. Materialism means prioritising image, status and popularity. It’s about looking good and believing that money is a sign of success and happiness. Materialistic kids (and adults too) often feel envy and resentment when someone else has something nice, or experiences success.
Materialism is ugly – and pervasive. Studies show that today’s teenagers are more materialistic and less interested in working hard then previous generations. This leads to a sense of entitlement. And you only have to look to social media to see the importance our kids are putting on image and status.
Some people argue that it’s human nature to be materialistic. And they even celebrate it. After all, they reason, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. He who dies with the most toys wins!
Well – it IS human nature to want more. Our desire for money and things is driven by our own inner belief that we can buy our way to happiness. But nothing could be further from the truth. An impressive body of research shows that materialism is both socially destructive and self-destructive. It is associated with anxiety, depression, and broken relationships. Those high in materialism experience lowered wellbeing and self-esteem, dysfunctional consumer behaviours and even poor physical health. In another series of studies as people became more materialistic, their good relationships, autonomy and even sense of purpose diminished.
This holds true for our kids – even those as young as ten. In fact, students who placed high importance on money, possessions, image and popularity, reported less self-actualisation, vitality and happiness, and more anxiety and unhappiness.
One study found that as students left university to work in the ‘real’ world, those with more materialistic desires were more miserable than those driven by purpose and altruism – even when they reached their materialistic goals!
Christmas doesn’t have to be about accumulating more stuff. We can minimise the material. There are ways to have a memorable (and gift-filled) holiday season, and still avoid the perils of materialism. Here’s how.
Gratitude is the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to you. A grateful person is thankful and appreciative in all aspects of their lives, and they also tend to be happy. This is no coincidence. Studies show us that gratitude may be one of the best wellbeing boosters there is. In fact, gratitude is the most important trait for predicting hope and happiness. (I’ve spoken about gratitude in depth here.)
You can help your kids be grateful by encouraging them to say thanks. Or by slowing down the gift opening so they can savour each gift. You might even ask them to write thank you cards to those who give to them (including you!).
Look outward, not inward
Instead of making lists of what they want for Christmas, encourage your kids to make lists of gifts for other people. Better yet, who can they help? Thinking about what a family member or friend might need encourages them to look outward. And it feels great. Christmas is a wonderful time to teach giving and the lessons can be powerful.
The reason for the season
Christmas is no longer the religious holiday it once was. While the vast majority of Australians celebrate Christmas in some form, for many it has become a primarily cultural holiday, while others have a different religious background altogether. For them, Christmas has no real meaning.
Yet, every Christmas season people donate their time, their energy and their money to help others. It’s still a time where people reach out to their neighbours, and strive for peace with their loved ones. Focusing on the values espoused by Christianity (and many other religions!), such as love and forgiveness, is a great way to turn our kids away from materialism.
The most memorable Christmases are the ones where we focus less on what we get and more on what we give. And the best things to give are usually the things that aren’t bought in a store, or even paid for with cash. They’re games around the dining table, someone to read with at night, and long walks with grandparents. They’re home-baked cookies and a card to say thanks, or a letter that highlights the best things about the past year together. They’re things that take the time to say, “you matter to me” and “I love you.”
This Christmas, minimise the material. Refocus on relationships. Get geared up for giving. It might make it your kids’ favourite Christmas ever.