Monday, December 19, 2016

Creating Grateful Kids at Christmastime

Buy them a Hatchimal, the end.


I am absolutely, 100% kidding. Hatchimals are not the answer, people.  

I remember being a kid and coming down the stairs and seeing the Christmas lights reflecting off the wrapping paper. There's nothing quite like the feeling of seeing that tree transform into a crowning, glorious king standing over boxes containing all things possible. What's in those packages? What might I get? It could be anything in there. I loved that feeling. I want my kids to feel that feeling.

So I buy them Christmas presents. I often spend more than I should. I am similar to many other imperfect parents out there - I want nothing more than a joyful, exceptional, educational childhood for my two daughters. I spend money I should really be putting toward my credit card bill, or waterproof boots, or truck repairs, or my student loans, because in my Christmas head, my kids' happiness is more important. And presents = happiness, right?

It takes me hours to pick out their gifts. I open maybe 4-5 Amazon windows at once and compare what's on sale to what's on their wish lists and price check with other vendors and calculate shipping costs and timetable delivery windows and compare how much I've spent on each kid and then, finally, I'm ready to order.

The boxes arrive and I stash them away, checking beforehand to ensure everything was delivered, again calculating who will get what and did I get enough for it to look equal for each girl and which present should be from Santa and which from me?

Then comes wrapping time. I spend hours upon hours wrapping things perfectly, signing Santa's name just so, picking out the perfect bows and making each package look as pretty as I can with these goshdang dull ass scissors, why haven't I replaced them yet, is this glue on my scissors? Am I seriously out of scotch tape again?

Hiding wrapped gifts is always a challenge. Shove them under the bed this year? What about that one cat who loves to eat shiny things? Is there room in the closet? What about when your youngest wants to grab your yoga mat "for you" out of there? Do I have enough clothes to hide them? How about the basement? The mice aren't active yet, right?

Finally, the day arrives. Christmas Eve. The kids get into bed and fall asleep late because they are so excited and you are also excited because it's time to play Santa. Time to arrange the presents just so, carefully stacking them so each and every label faces out, each package manipulated so it fits perfectly and every last present can be seen. I prop them up and rearrange and shift low-hanging ornaments around and tuck and balance and finally, finally, it is done. I pour myself a drink and sit there on the couch, smiling and glowing at my accomplishment in the colorful, dim light given off by the tree. They are going to be so happy, I say. And then I go to sleep.

Christmas morning breaks and the sound of hurried little feet wakes the whole house and soon it is present time. Ripping, paper, plastic, ribbons in pieces.

And, inevitably, smiles. But then, like a pin to a balloon, you catch a glimpse of downturned eyes. Maybe even tears. I asked Santa for _____ and it's not here or I was really hoping for _____, but I guess this is ok too. Or, and this is the most gut-wrenching reaction in my humble opinion, no smiles at all, just a whooshing sound as the gift you worked so hard to pick out is tossed into a pile of forever forgotten and unappreciated.

Sometimes, dear readers, kids are straight asshats.

I've tried very hard to teach my children to find joy in the little things. To be grateful for the big things. To keep the perspective....but truth be told, it's hard for me to accomplish those things. I get just as excited when I buy things I really want. I get just as disappointed when someone spends money on something I didn't really need. I'm just better at hiding it.

But there is something to be said about learning gratuity at an early age. Maybe if I'd learned to practice being happy in the moment a few years earlier, I wouldn't be so gosh-awful at it right now. Maybe if I'd learned to ween off my attachment to things when I was younger, I wouldn't be so stuck in a traditional American lifestyle today. Maybe there are things I can do to help create a sense of gratefulness and joy in my kids regardless of what's under the tree. Practice makes perfect, amirite?

Teach manners
The very first thing a kid should say after getting a present is thank you. I don't care if they love it or not, I don't care if they just started talking last year, that kid should know and understand "thank you" as an automatic response to getting anything. It's basic manners and believe me, kids are capable of executing this one.

I didn't insist on this enough with my oldest and she still, at ten years old, needs to be reminded to say thank you. My four year old, however, was taught at a very young age that if Mama gets something for her, she needs to say thank you before that object is handed over to her. Kid training, manipulation, white lies, call it what you need to say thank you. Letting this one slide opens up a world of ungrateful behavior possibilities in the future.

Teach privilege
Show them what underprivileged looks like. When you visit the city to go Christmas shopping explain on the ride over about people on the streets who have no homes, no food, no money, and no closets full of toys. Show them videos and pictures of kids from other areas of the world. Show them how one dirty teddy bear is a most treasured possession in some families.

There's a vast number of people who believe this type of awareness is "too mature" for kids. Let them keep their innocence, this group tells me...and to that I argue, if a child's "innocence" leads to selfishness and a warped sense of entitlement, egocentrism, and ignorance, then perhaps a little loss of "innocence" is a necessary and needed component of parenting. We can, being parents after all, select which images to show them, how to explain it to them, and how best to teach them about the realities of life. What a precious and important opportunity to move our young and beautiful minds in a more productive, empathetic, and gracious direction.

Teach hardship
Make them go without. Kid complaining about not having the same motorized scooter as that kid next door? Take their bike away. Kid not capable of following your very specific and repeated instructions about brushing their teeth? Make them mix up the next batch of homemade toothpaste instead of having free time. Kid not wanting to eat what you make for dinner? Send their butt to bed 'till you're done enjoying your meal. Kid not wanting to help fold laundry? Stop washing their clothes for a week and tell them to solve their own problems when they're getting ready for school and they have no underwear.

This can be done for younger kids too. I am not as extreme with my youngest yet, she is still at that beautiful age where she pretty much appreciates her food and listens to my instructions. But that doesn't mean I get to slack on teaching her how things come to be. I talk to her about where the water comes from. I show her how hard it is to grow something from a seed. She understands the sacrifice involved in standing outside in the cold and scraping the truck down so we can drive into town. You can teach hardship without it being a punishment. The point is to highlight the secret, hidden efforts that hum in the background of everything we're blessed to have in this country.

Teach wonder
Joy lives in the small things! The best part about this particular point? It already comes natural to your kids. Children live in the minute, moment-to-moment, and truly find magic in the smallest places. Encourage and support this by allowing them to explore, get dirty, and be independent. Show them wonder in your own way - do a quick science experiment. Do a cooking lesson. Do some crafts. Do some magic shows. Do some puppet shows. Do some writing. Do some art. Do some hiking.

Do you get the picture? heh heh heh seewhatididthere! Kids who find wonder in the small things are the same kids who get a Christmas present, pop the bow off, hold it to their little hearts, and exclaim "thank you!" with tears in their eyes, thinking the bow is the present. That kind of mentality is hard to keep as expectations crowd around them....but with some encouragement and modeling at home, magic can be found everywhere.

Teach generosity
It's better to give than to receive, eh? Tell that to my empty bank account. That is what my evil Kermit tells me each time I see a red bucket, a Toys for Tots box, or another GoFundMe link. Thankfully I've learned to tune out my evil Kermit years ago.

Once you start giving you realize it really isn't the money and stuff that makes you happy - it's getting rid of it that frees your soul. Spending on others is ridiculously rewarding, especially when done regularly. I often let fear get in the way of giving. I'm afraid - I need to feed my own kids, or get my own kids presents, or have enough to pay our own bills.....but over the years as I've spontaneously given to people who I believe truly need it, I've learned the money, in all of its irrelevant glory, always finds a way back to me. I gave more this year, the year of my divorce and single-mama-starting point, than I ever did when married....and guess what, I've not been shoved out of my house or stranded in the gutter or forced to eat moldy bread.

Teach the lesson of trust and responsible giving to kiddos. Teach them to give whenever they can. Give money. Give time. Give love. A generous heart is a grateful and thankful heart. Give often.

Teach value
Money has no value other than that which we place on it ourselves. And guess what...the same can be said about every other thing in our lives. We get to choose what has value and what does not. It's our decision as smart, brainy lil humans. And it's a skill we can teach to our kids.

Materialism is constantly calling to me. Buy the nicest car, have the cutest curtains, make sure the kids are dressed in the best clothes. These desires often capitalize on deep-seeded insecurities about acceptance....I want to be liked....I want to be viewed a certain way. It's a losing battle that even kids feel, especially on the playground when the ever-present love and acceptance of mama and home is dulled by distance. Teach kids to value themselves over their possessions. Teach kids how to value the food instead of the plates the food sits on. Teach them to place value on relationships, human interactions, words, music, art, animals, and nature. Teach them the riches in the soil and the riches around the dinner table. Those are the things that hold value - and the sooner they learn that, the sooner their Christmas lists will detail things that fill their hearts and minds and souls instead of toy closets.

Now I know what you might be thinking. And I agree. These lessons are a mite unrealistic, aren't they? I mean, I love presents. How can I expect my kids not to? And the answer is that this isn't about not wanting presents - it's about truly appreciating the ones you get.

And, my dear readers, these lessons don't mean a thing when they're not exemplified at home. It is critical to not only point out and teach manners, privilege, hardship, wonder, generosity, and value, but to lead by example. Half the reason my kid loves the snow is because I giggle like a schoolgirl when it falls from the sky. I'll wake them up just to show them a full moon and hold them in my arms and sing them soft songs before returning them to bed. I'll jump up and down when I find our first pumpkin of the season. I try and sing loudly even when I'm sad. Kids are watching you - and that is perhaps the most important part of teaching, being aware of what you actions and your responses say to your students.

Kids are kids. They will make mistakes and behave like jerks and test patience and they won't learn any of these lessons overnight. The point, however, is to give them the chance. A book is useless until it's picked up. A message is irrelevant until it's heard. And presents don't mean a thing until they are received by a grateful heart.

What do you do to teach your kiddos generosity? If you're not a parent, what types of challenges do you endure when dealing with the kids around you at Christmastime? I'd love to hear about it in the comments down below and as always, thank you so very much for reading! Merry Christmas :)


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