What Kids Really Want For the Holidays

By Marie Sherlock

Tips for Making the Season More Meaningful and Memorable

holiday familyWithout a doubt, gift giving is the most anticipated tradition of the winter holidays – particularly for children. Whether your family observes Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or just the cultural end-of-the-year festivities, many kids will likely make wish lists, relay those requests to a jolly department store Santa and fall asleep at night with visions of goody-stuffed stockings and mountainous piles of toys.

But, according to Jean Staeheli, co-author of the classic book Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the Season (Quill/William Morrow, 1991), the stuff under the tree isn’t really the stuff that makes for fond childhood memories. Over the past two decades, Staeheli and co-author Jo Robinson have interviewed hundreds of parents about what they recalled of their holidays as kids. “Rarely could they remember gifts. They remembered the feelings, the rituals and the relationships,” says Staeheli. “That’s not to say presents aren’t important,” she explains, “but not nearly as important as our actions would indicate.”

The two authors conducted dozens of workshops during the ’80s and ’90s on how to make the holidays more joy-filled and meaningful. As part of those workshops, they asked participants to fantasize about their perfect holiday. Staeheli and Robinson found that most envisioned “simple gifts, natural decorations, a fire, traditional food, leisurely schedules, music, time spent out of doors and an emphasis on family activities.”

Staeheli feels that what kids really want during the holidays is really what they want – what we all want – year-round: relaxed times with family and friends, special rituals and traditions and a connection with nature.

Here’s a breakdown of what she says are the elements of a truly memorable holiday for kids, along with some ideas for how to incorporate these memory-making essentials into your family’s holidays:

1. Kids want time with their families. During the holidays, says Staeheli, “kids really want time with their parents and time as a family together. The irony is that time can be the hardest thing to come by in December.”

How can families find time during the holidays? Although some parents actually cancel their non-family December obligations, other obligations are self-imposed, Staeheli says. She cautions mothers to not fall victim to the cultural myth of women occupying the role of “Christmas magicians,” turning the season into a production to mirror the flawless images of women’s magazines. “Think about what’s really important,” says Staeheli, and make those things the focus. In fact, she sees the season as “the perfect time for manifesting what’s important for your family. It’s a tremendous opportunity for families to sit down and talk about their values.” What most parents will conclude is that being available for their families and having the kids involved in the season’s activities take precedence over magazine cover perfection.

2. Kids want an evenly paced holiday season. It’s important for kids, says Staeheli, to have “a season that unfolds.” A single-minded focus on the Christmas morning gift giving extravaganza will backfire, she says. One parent at an unplugging Christmas workshop shared the reaction of her 6-year-old daughter after opening a huge pile of gifts Christmas morning. The young girl turned to her parents and said – in true out-of-the-mouths-of-babes, unknowingly double entendre fashion – “Is that all there is?”

The mission of parents, says Staeheli, is to show their kids that, no, that’s not all there is to the holidays. “Kids want their parents to interpret the season for them so that it has meaning,” she says.

Part of that interpretation includes taking part in fun, family activities throughout December. “Visiting Santa, preparing gift baskets for others, attending church services, singing carols, going to see the snow in the mountains, all of these are important parts of the holiday season,” says Staeheli, and can be spread throughout the month.

For those who observe Christmas, stretching the season out beyond December 25th is also crucial. Scheduling extended family get-togethers for the week after Christmas can help to make the week leading up to Christmas Eve less hectic and allow the kids to prolong the fun. In their book, Staeheli and Robinson cite the example of one family that took the letdown out of December 26th by adopting a fun routine. The family’s three kids took turns controlling one aspect of each day between Christmas and New Year’s. For example, one child would proclaim Dec. 26th to be “Stay Up as Late as You Want” Day; another would announce the next morning that it was “Eat What You Want for Dinner” Day. These are the types of activities – fun, free, family-focused – that make for memories, says Staeheli.

3. Kids want reliable family traditions. The last two examples show the importance of establishing family holiday traditions. These special practices help to accomplish the first two goals of a kid-friendly holiday by protecting family time together, slowing down the pace of the season and interpreting the holidays in a meaningful way. “Kids are conservative,” explains Staeheli, “they want the same things to happen each year, the things they’ve always done, the things they don’t do the rest of the year.” See “Adopting Memory-Making Holiday Traditions.”

Staeheli recommends that families sit down at the end of November or beginning of December and write down the family’s traditions on the calendar, allowing the kids to anticipate those events.

4. Kids want realistic expectations about gifts. Staeheli’s two daughters, now grown, knew that each year they would receive one gift that they’d asked for, one that they needed and one surprise item. “They were always happy with what they received,” she says.

The important part of gifts for kids is that their gift anticipation be roughly equivalent to what they actually receive. And, adds Staeheli, “If you’re going to make an adjustment in the number of gifts, make sure you balance that with more time spent with the kids, more rituals.”

Focusing on fun, family practices will ensure that your kids enjoy their holidays – and remember them long after the tinsel and gift wrap are swept up. “It’s really not what you buy but it’s the quality of the relationships that matters,” says Staeheli. “It’s your family’s capacity for having fun.”

More About Memorable Holidays:

  • Adopting Memory-Making Holiday Traditions
  • Raising Non-Materialistic Kids
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