Make holidays more about family, less about gifts

Cynthia Whitham, LCSW
Cynthia Whitham, LCSW

What parent hasn’t watched their children tear into one gift after another on Christmas morning and wondered: Is there a way to make the holidays more about relationships and less about stuff?

Cynthia Whitham, a licensed clinical social worker and director of the UCLA Parenting & Children's Friendship Program at the Semel Institute at UCLA, has some suggestions. Her advice is influenced by her work counseling parents on how to handle troublesome child and teen behavior, as well as lessons learned raising two children.

To add some restraint to the holiday onslaught of materialism, Whitham suggests:

  1. Hold a family meeting. Make it short, light, and fun. Provide snacks. Start with something like, “You know, I think we overdo it.”
  2. Bake something for your neighbors and have the family take it over to them.
  3. Model thoughtfulness, such as talking out loud about a great gift that Grandma, or someone else, would love. It helps children see there is a process to gift-giving, and a joy involved that is different from gift-receiving.
  4. Turn need-to-have items into gifts, such as six new pairs of socks. It’s fine to warn the kids that, “Some of the presents will be fun presents and some will be stuff we need.”
  5. Set out some board games, card games, or puzzles. They set the stage for nice conversations.
  6. Make traditions. Create rituals/customs. You only have to do something two years in a row for it to become a vivid memory for your child.
  7. Don’t respond to nagging. You can say, “Anything you beg and badger for, we’re not buying.”
  8. Share stories with your children about celebrating the holidays when you were a kid, and what made that time of year meaningful.

Whitham, a native New Englander, has a Christmas story to tell.  Two days before Christmas in 1986, Whitham moved to northeast Los Angeles with her husband and two small children. Arriving hours after the appointed time and packing until midnight, the movers refused the couple’s check, instead demanding $500, in cash, before they would unload the truck. Whitham’s husband had to leave her and the children alone with the movers as he searched for ATMs in the unfamiliar part of town.

They were still upset about the incident the next day when a neighbor knocked on the door. Would Whitham and her family like to join the neighborhood’s annual Christmas caroling party? the neighbor asked.

“It brought back all the wonderful feelings of community and doing things for others,” from her New England childhood, where holidays were about baking cookies for neighbors or playing board games, Whitham said. “That Christmas really captured everything you want in a meaningful holiday experience.”

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