5 Holiday Lessons to Teach Your Kids

While my kids have loads of presents sitting under the tree and ready to fill their stocking, it has dawned on me that I have much more valuable gifts I need to instill. I sat down and reflected on what I really want them to understand about the holiday season. For some people, the holidays are magical. I know people who start decorating in August and count down the days.

For other people, the holidays are extremely difficult. People remember loved ones they have lost, they face the holidays alone, and/or they may not be able to buy presents for their loved ones. It can be a paradoxical season — filled with joy and pain. These feelings have only been heightened by the pandemic.

Still, the season has a lot it can offer us besides Christmas trees and brown paper packages tied up with strings. For some reason, something about this season inspires me (and others) to rise above and be better. And it’s not just Christmas, it’s the whole holiday season.

Regardless of beliefs, here are five important holiday lessons you can share with your kids:

1. It’s Important to Give to Others

This is probably the most obvious lesson of the holidays. I missed a major opportunity here this year. I dutifully picked out all the school teachers’ presents, my children’s friends’ presents, and wrote their names on every family members’ present. They have no idea what most of these presents are. (To be fair, neither does my husband). I suck up all the Christmas joy because to be honest, giving presents is my love language.

I need to do better here. I made a list of things I can do to help show my children what joy can be found in giving to other people:

  • Have them pick out friends’ and families’ gifts
  • Have them be present when the gifts are opened so they can see the joy
  • Have them donate their own toys to a local shelter or Salvation Army
  • Have them help you bake Christmas cookies and deliver them to the neighbors
  • Adopt a family in need and have your child help pick out, wrap, and deliver the presents. Explain to them how this is a family who does not have the ability to provide these presents and it’s something we can do to make life better for someone else.

I want my kids to recognize the advantages they have, and understand how not everyone gets to enjoy those advantages. Which brings me to the next lesson…

2. Learn to Recognize Your Privilege

I once had a friend who told me a story about the time she and her siblings won a GIANT chocolate bunny around Easter. Upon learning of the win, their mom immediately announced that they would be donating the treat to the local food bank, and she made her kids give it up. They had plenty of their own chocolate at home.

The sweet thing is they tell this story with pride. They aren’t mad at their mom for making them give up the sweet (thought they might have been at the time). They are happy and proud that their mom taught them a much bigger and more important lesson. She made them aware of what they already had and showed them how to act compassionately.

Recognizing privilege is about not taking more than we need, and doing what we can to help others get what they need. It is meeting people where they are, truly trying to understand their experience, and moving forward with empathy and compassion.

Recognizing privilege is also about understanding how advantages in your life may make you more likely to underestimate a problem because you are unlikely to have experienced that problem. It’s not that people should be punished for those advantages, but we do have a responsibility to understand the blind spots they may create. Not seeing those blind spots puts us at risk for being cruel (and that’s not a very Christmassy thing to be).

3. Be Good Because it’s the Right Thing To Do.

I stopped using Santa and our Elf on the Shelf as method of controlling my kids behavior. While I’m all for using story-telling to instill values, this one didn’t sit right with me. There are two reasons for this: One, I’m never going to follow through. I wouldn’t deny the magic of Christmas morning to my child, so why would I tell her that Santa won’t bring her presents if she is bad? It’s an empty threat. Not only that, but kids have a hard time regulating their behavior for rewards in the future. I’m ultimately setting her up for failure. Consequences for kids should be immediate, doable, and fair. Threatening that Santa won’t bring her presents doesn’t meet any of those requirements.

The Second Reason: If I’m being honest, the presents that Santa gets my kid aren’t that great (therefore, not that much of an incentive). I do this on purpose. I’m afraid that if she goes into school bragging that Santa got her some expensive over-the-top toy, a child whose family couldn’t afford such luxury would wonder what he did wrong. Why didn’t Santa get him something so good? The “good” toys come from Mom and Dad.

But, that doesn’t mean my kids have a free pass to act like feral children and then gleefully open presents on Christmas morning. The holidays are a great time to emphasize the lesson that being a good person is important for its own sake. You won’t always get presents and rewards every time you are good. In fact, bad things happen to good people sometimes (and vice versa). That doesn’t mean we throw in the towel. We are good because it is the right thing to do.

4. It’s Important to Respect Diversity

Originally, the first sentence I wrote here was, help your child tolerate other beliefs this time of year. The word tolerate did not feel right. We shouldn’t just tolerate other beliefs, we should understand and support them. I’m not saying we should all light menorahs and eat traditional African food instead of ham on Christmas Day. But, maybe now would be a great time to introduce an African dish sometime in the end of December and read a book about Kwanza. Maybe we could watch a movie about Hanukkah. We can learn what our friends celebrate and support them in their celebrations.

Every year my mom would keep up the Christmas decorations for a longer period of time than other people in our neighborhood. I learned she did this because our neighbors celebrated Russian Orthodox Christmas and theirs didn’t happen until January 7th. She wanted them to feel supported. It made them feel good, and that’s what this time of year is all about.

Side note: when people are saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, it is not a war on Christmas. They don’t know what you celebrate and they don’t want to make assumptions. It’s truly a sign of respect for whatever you celebrate, including Christmas.

5. You Can Get a Fresh Start:

Towards the end of the holiday season, most people in the United States celebrate the New Year. Many people (50% or so) choose to commemorate this holiday with a New Year’s resolution. The truth is less than 10% of those people actually keep those resolutions.

So why do we do it? The new year represents for us a new start. Everyone makes mistakes and I want my kids to understand that our mistakes do not define us. We are special in our ability to stand back up, learn from our mistake, and do better. I want my kids to know that we are what we repeatedly do. If we repeatedly make bad choices and treat people cruelly, we are bad people. But, if we repeatedly work to make good choices and be a good person, then that is exactly what we are. At every given moment we are given the opportunity to choose. I want them to know that they can choose a fresh start, they can make better decisions, they are not defined by what they have done in the past.

They are in control of what they are.

As I write, I realize how much of this I need emphasized in my own life. I had my own experience with privilege this year when I took to Twitter to complain about my holiday cards being late. The postal service has been cut off at its knees, there are record numbers of packages, postal workers are working their tails off, but my Christmas cards! I look back at those tweets with shame, how privileged and unaware I sound..

We all make mistakes but we all have the opportunity to choose better next time. So maybe these lessons aren’t just for our kids. Maybe these are lessons from which we can all benefit during this time of year.

Happy Holidays Everyone.

An avid learner of neuroscience and child development. Once a certified counselor and teacher, now a parent, IT Professional and children’s author.

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