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Keeping children’s holiday expectations real

Emphasize family traditions, be clear with kids they won't get all they want
/ Source: The Associated Press

Opening presents looms large in the holiday imagination of any child, and it’s obviously a fun way to show kids and other loved ones how you feel. But how can parents keep materialism in check when children are bombarded by ads and pressure to have more shiny new things? How can they help kids remember the many meaningful parts of the holidays?

“Parents should set an example, in both their actions and words, about what is important,” says Dr. Janette B. Benson, associate professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

That means establishing rituals and traditions, she and other experts say. Those might include preparing holiday meals together, going to religious services, baking cookies or making homemade gifts.

To help kids understand current events and focus on “the sharing and caring aspects of the holidays, parents might consider having children participate in sending a gift to a soldier abroad or a family uprooted by the hurricanes,” Benson says.

Parents must decide for themselves what kind of holidays they want for the family, “informed by their own traditions and faith,” and not the expectations of relatives, the media or others, suggests Dr. Michael Smith, associate professor of psychology at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Penn.

Ask yourself, he says, “In 30 years, what would I want my kids to remember about Christmas — the presents or family traditions?”

Setting limits is important.

“Young children will often develop unreasonable expectations by thinking that they will receive all the gifts they desire. When this doesn’t happen, they will be disappointed,” says Benson. “If children know ahead of time that they should not expect to receive everything they ask for, they will soon learn to only ask for the things that matter to them.”

One strategy for parents might be balancing clothing with toys, or more expensive gifts with less expensive ones.

“Be up front and honest with kids who ask you why other kids get more stuff,” Smith says. “Parents should tell them that Christmas is about faith, celebration and giving. It is not about shopping, money and getting.”

Parents should listen hard for what their child is really interested in so they can focus on things that will really be enjoyed. Children can become overwhelmed by all the things out there and often don’t know what they really want, says Roni Leiderman of the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

And talk as a family about ways to recognize the people in your lives, suggests Kerrie Laguna, associate professor of psychology for Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Penn.

“It might mean buying a special gift, making one, or doing something for the person, like making a favorite meal or writing about a favorite memory,” she says.

“The real value of holidays is that they provide a ritual for recognition of people we love. Fortunately, these rituals can take many forms and we should resist letting the form be dictated by consumption pressures.