Once upon a time, I lived in a beautiful world where our first child, Elijah, was oblivious to the idea of making a Christmas wish list for himself or seeing the holiday as a time to get whatever he asked for. We just spent the holiday talking about the birth of Jesus, looking at lights, baking cookies, hanging out with family, and more.
We could watch TV, even children’s programming with all of its targeted advertising, without our little guy shouting out after every commercial, “I want that!”
Since we didn’t play up Santa much, he kind of freaked out people in the store when he stared at them blankly instead of eagerly answering their question of “What do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?” (It was kind of funny to watch, actually.)
As he got older, however, those outside influences and his own experiences (he knew that Mommy and Daddy, his grandparents, and other family were going to buy him presents) started to turn his first thoughts of Christmastime to “What am I going to get?”
And of course, Josiah picked up on the game even earlier, with the help of his older brother.
Now there is nothing wrong with looking forward to presents. Children, like all of us, enjoy receiving presents and get excited about that aspect of Christmas very easily. That’s not really bad – it’s human nature. Receiving presents is awesome. So, no, I’m not anti-gifts, especially for my children.
However, I don’t want my boys’ main concerns at Christmas to be focused on themselves and what they hope to get on Christmas morning.
Not because I’m stuffy and mean or a grinchy Scrooge.
Not because of “kids these days…”
But because I love them and want the very best for them.
And the very best joy at Christmas isn’t found in the getting.
If we want our children to truly enjoy Christmas to the fullest, then we have to let them experience the absolute best part – the giving.
So, here are some things we’ve done over the years to try to keep the “I Wants” and holiday entitlement at bay while allowing our boys to revel in the real fun of Christmas by making the season about celebrating Jesus and giving to others.
1. WRITE A “WISH TO GIVE” LIST
Even though Elijah can now write his own Christmas wish list, I still like to have our boys help us make the Gift-Giving list for their cousins, grandparents, and teachers. Challenging them to come up with good, thoughtful gifts that they know would make that person happy for Christmas requires the boys to think about that person’s likes, interests, or needs – not their own.
2. SHOP FOR OTHERS
Something else we’ve always done is let the boys go shopping with us. They may not help pick out all the gifts because shopping with kids at Christmas is insane…and they aren’t the best at keeping secrets yet. But we do want them to be a part of at least some of it, even if it’s choosing the wrapping paper.
They also get to pick out presents for Mommy, Daddy, and each other. With a set budget per person, my husband and I either take turns with them in the stores, or better still – send them with their grandparents, so they can find just the right gifts. We try to let them come up with the idea, and while sometimes they need a little direction (No, Mommy doesn’t really want a Barbie), we let them make the final decision about the gift they want to give. They also get to wrap it themselves (with help as needed).
3. MAKE PRESENTS
While buying an awesome gift is good, taking the time to make one makes it even more special. Each year I help the boys create something for their grandparents, whether it’s an ornament, an oven mitt, or a picture frame. The goal is to find something useful that the grandparents will actually want that our kids can actually make (Haha). When they invest more of themselves into a gift, it means more for them when they give that gift away.
Here are some ideas of gifts we’ve made for the grandparents for past Christmases.
4. PACK A SHOEBOX/SPONSOR A FAMILY/GIVE A GOAT
When Elijah was younger, the church we attended participated in the annual Samaritan’s Purse Operation Christmas Child, where you pack a shoebox-sized box with small items that a child would like or need, based on the age range and gender you chose. Those boxes are then sent all over the world to minister to children who most likely have never received a Christmas present before. Not only do they enjoy a big party and get to open a gift, they also learn about Jesus.
We always had Elijah help us select and pack the gifts in our shoeboxes.
If it’s too late to take part in the Shoebox collection this year, you can also check out other options on the Samaritan’s Purse site for helping families around the world. You can give a goat (yes, seriously), provide clean water, help provide medical care for a pregnant mother, or meet one of the other needs listed. Not only does this help a family overseas, but you can also use it to start conversations with your child about how blessed we really are in our nation, the difference between wants and needs, and how the whole world needs Jesus.
Our current church home doesn’t do the shoeboxes, but they still offer a variety of ways for us to bless other children and families at Christmas time, such providing food for Christmas day meals or blessing a local child with a Christmas gift. (Each year they host a Christmas party for children who are part of Ohio’s Kinship Care, a relative foster care placement program, and we get to help provide the gifts for the kids. Of course, we recruit our boys’ help when we shop for those gifts, too.)
If you don’t have an official outreach from your church or a local organization, you could make Christmas brighter for a child by giving to Toys for Tots, the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree Program, or any number of charities, or just choose a family you know that might need some extra cheer and bless them.
5. PLAN FOR SIMPLE RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS
Every year we go with my husband’s family to one of the many downtown Christmas celebrations held around the area. When Elijah was about 2, I brought along a pack of candy canes for him to give out to the different shop cashiers, street performers, and random strangers we met throughout the evening. I knew he would be getting all kinds of treats and special goodies, and I wanted him to have a way to give to others, even if it was something small.
Giving out candy canes, either during that family outing or another, has become one of the things we do during the holiday season. The boys enjoy surprising people with the treat, a smile, and a “Merry Christmas!”
And after the success of our mission to bless random people during our family vacation this summer, I can see us using those clips on the car visor for extra special acts of kindness this Christmas.
What I’ve learned from the candy canes and our summer’s random acts of kindness is that my kids LOVE to look for creative ways to make someone else’s day. It gets them looking for opportunities and thinking much more about others.
6. MAKE COOKIES TO GIVE
Similar to the homemade gifts our boys make for their grandparents, having them help make cookies to give away means that those cookies are extra special.
We like to put together a cookie plate for our elderly neighbor every year, and the boys go with us to deliver it and wish him a merry Christmas.
You can also put together cookie trays for your local fire and police departments or for co-workers or church staff.
7. A FOUR-GIFT CHRISTMAS
A couple of years ago, we decided to try a new approach to our family’s gift-giving, reining in excess, entitlement, and holiday stress by following the four-gift rule. This meant that our list for each boy would only include four presents: something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read.
This approach has been hugely successful for us. Our boys are just as excited about Christmas morning as kids who expect piles and piles of presents.
But by limiting the number of gifts, it helps make the season less about what they want to get. Plus, as a family we can continue to focus on creative ways to celebrate Jesus and bless others.
8. READ THE CHRISTMAS STORY…OFTEN
If we really want our children to focus on the true meaning of Christmas, they need to know what it is and why we are celebrating to begin with.
In our house, we have a special way of telling about the birth of Jesus. One of our boys’ (and mine) favorite decorations is my Fontanini nativity set. Since the pieces are not easily breakable (we’ve not lost one yet), I let the boys play with them to re-enact the story of Christmas. In December, nearly every night before bed, they will ask for us to read Luke 2 or Matthew 2 to them as they move each character around with the telling.
You might not have a child-friendly nativity set to play with, but that’s okay. Simply read about it from the Bible and talk with your children about what it all means. Or find a good children’s book about baby Jesus. Or a movie. Even the Christmas music that surrounds us all season should give you an opportunity to remember Whom we are really celebrating.
9. BE INTENTIONAL WHEN IT’S TIME TO OPEN PRESENTS
We’ve all seen the Christmas shows and movies where the kids race down the stairs on Christmas morning, head straight for the tree, and gleefully start tearing into the packages, as the parents stand back and watch the unfolding chaos.
While I LOVE the enthusiasm and joy that children bring to Christmas, this free-for-all approach doesn’t send the message that we want our boys to get.
From the time that they were young, our children have learned that we wait until everyone’s gathered together (and the camera is ready – obviously!). Then we take turns opening one present at a time.
Slowing down the process allows them to actually appreciate what they receive and gives them a chance to express that appreciation to the giver.
It also allows them to witness someone else’s delight at opening a gift, making the presents about shared joy and not just their own.
10. MODEL THE ATTITUDE
You knew this one was coming, right? If you have children of any age, you know by now that they are better at emulating what they’ve seen than what they’ve been told.
Lead the way, and set the example.
Have patience in crazy traffic. Be considerate of even the crazy shoppers in the stores. Express your thanks for kind gestures and gifts. Find ways to cheerfully bless others.
These are just some of the things that we’ve been doing as a family to try to make our holidays more about others.
Are our children perfect, selfless, altruistic little angels? Not at all.
But they are learning to think of others at least a little bit more and with a genuine heart to help and give.
And slowly, but surely they are realizing an important eternal truth – that it truly is more blessed to give than to receive. 🙂
There are many more ways to help your children experience the full joy of the season through thinking of others.
WHAT WOULD YOU ADD?
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