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Some time ago, my husband and I read articles about children from low socio-economic backgrounds who felt left out or abandoned at this time of year because “Santa Claus” had given them something something much smaller or less extravagant than what he had given their friends. It was a revelation that broke my heart, and it prompted us to rethink how we approach Christmas with our own children: giving the most expensive gifts like gifts from mom and dad, and the least expensive – but certainly still fun – as gifts that came from Santa Claus.
It was our way of celebrating this time a little more consciously and ethically: taking great care not to deprive our own children of the joy and shine of the season, while demonstrating that it is time for us to think of others who may not be able to participate in the festivities as they wish.
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This year, after rising interest rates and soaring inflation, this approach seems particularly relevant. A recent survey suggests that just over half of the Australian population will use their savings to fund holiday spending this year, while 24% will need to take on debt to cover their Christmas expenses. This includes 13% who will rely on their credit card and 9% who will use buy-it-now and pay-later services in order to meet period requirements.
But can we find an alternative to these demands?
While that may be easier said than done, child psychologist Deirdre Brandner says it’s important not to get caught up in the “impossible ‘pink’ images of the ‘perfect family Christmas’.”
“We can be so influenced by social media and the commercial nature of the holiday season that we create unrealistic expectations for ourselves and for gifts,” she says. “Christmas is more than gifts [and] research shows that the most positive memories children have of Christmas are actually the special traditions you do as a family year after year, both before and on the day.
“Don’t fall for the ‘power to bully’ or buy too many presents because you want your child to have ‘the best Christmas ever’. You should be aware of peer pressure or marketing material, and [know that] there is nothing wrong with children being disappointed. There’s always next year, or the year after. Excess creates satisfied individuals and even higher expectations next year.
She says it’s wise to approach the season with balance, having pre-Christmas conversations that manage your child’s expectations. She acknowledges that it can break a parent’s heart when they can’t give their child a gift they love, but says it’s important that parents are the ones to set the values and boundaries around the gifts rather than the other way around.
“Parents need to prepare their children ahead of time if they can’t afford the gifts on their children’s wish list,” she explains. “Children need to learn how to react and cope when they receive a gift that is not what they wanted or asked for. Helping them think about all the things they love about Christmas besides gifts can add to the fun [and in the making] memories and rituals.
What if the tall man in red complicates things in your household – with a kid holding out hope for an extravagant gift that just won’t fit the budget? Brandner says it’s hard, but we need to consider changing the narrative that kids get everything they want from Santa.
“A lot of kids want to know why Santa gives more to other kids,” she explains. “They think they weren’t good enough or that Santa Claus didn’t like them as much. Children should know that Santa Claus will bring you something beautiful, but he doesn’t always bring what you ask for. Tell your child [that] Santa Claus needs a complete list to choose from and Santa Claus try to get at least one thing on the list.
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She advises not to buy too much when the kids are really small and to make sure your kids know that not all presents are from Santa. She also recommends sticking to the “four gift rule” – “something to wear, something to read, something they want, and something they need.”
And for those who can afford to go further? She suggests celebrating while thinking about ways to mark the season in a way that’s more conscious of others and the environment, and that reflects your family values. She suggests sponsoring a family, getting involved in an environmental cause, committing to volunteering or serving a charity in the New Year, or considering donating food or spending money. time with loved ones and friends as a way to give meaningfully. .
“The Christmas season is a great opportunity to teach our children to develop gratitude, develop empathy and be caring and [giving] back,” she said. “We all have the potential for kindness and generosity. Awareness of conscious giving is the first step [and] as parents, we can model this behavior.
• Sarah Ayoub is a journalist, academic and author of books for young adults and children