Taking the Hype Out of the Holidays
Christmas is upon us. Fantasy and magic are in the air, allowing grown-ups to believe miracles happen. We adults picture our children as rosy-cheeked cherubs helping with the holiday shopping, offering outgrown toys for the “poor children,” then sweetly slumbering while visions of sugarplums dance.
For most of us, this miracle never gets off the ground as many of our darlings become whining, fighting, overtired gremlins obsessed with their own gift lists and stay this way until about noon on Christmas Day when they collapse in exhaustion.
Christmas has become far too complex and commercial for many children to really enjoy. Although unhappy about this, most parents feel powerless to control it and aren’t entirely clear about why it sometimes seems to be the source of more childhood anxiety than fun.
“Christmas is a stressful time for children mostly because it’s a stressful time for adults. We start the ‘hype’ too soon and do too much,” says Sheila McCandless, a former kindergarten teacher in Amesbury.
During December, most parents busy themselves with shopping, baking, card writing, entertaining or worrying about how much all of this is going to cost them. McCandless notes that children, for whom this should be a special time, are too frequently left in the care of a babysitter or plopped in front of the television. In any case, they are not the highest priority – and they sense it.
Although we parents make a sizable contribution to our children’s holiday stress, we’re not the only culprits. Jo Robinson, who has studied Christmas and co-authored the book Unplug the Christmas Machine, has found that retailers have destroyed the natural rhythm of the holiday in order to lengthen their most profitable time of the year.
In the past, she notes, Christmas was preceded by a few weeks of preparation followed by a week or two of celebration. Today, children focus months of holiday excitement onto a brief gift-opening period on Dec. 25. They know it’s over when they see the rapid dismantling of holiday displays and chaotic sales the day after Christmas.
Then there are the TV toy commercials bombarding children throughout November and December. McCandless says that children are very susceptible to television’s glamorization of toys and are easily swept into the “I want it” mode; but the “I want it” anxiety can be lessened if parents take the time to discuss the child’s reason for wanting the toy. Help them understand that advertising is about the people who make the toy making money.
Are our children really doomed to be helpless victims of our adult holiday compulsions and the powerful workings of commercialism? No, says Robinson. Parents can overcome social pressure and retailing hype, but they must take an active role. “Parents can’t turn their kids over to the TV and expect their influence to predominate,” she says, adding that parents should clearly define the Christmas celebration, explaining what is important about the holiday for their family and how they will observe it. This calls for some hard thinking on the part of the parents, possibly followed by some changes, even some sacrifices.
Children not only want to be assured that they’re loved at Christmas, “they want to have a role in the festivities, and they want to have a relaxed parent there that welcomes their role,” says Robinson. Frosting cookies, making wrapping paper – the simple but time-consuming things – mean more to most children than a roomful of gifts. So don’t give up on that holiday miracle just yet. Maybe if you give the gifts of caring and time this year, you and your cherubs will share the merriest Christmas of all.