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6 Ways to Squash Kids' Materialism This Holiday

Getting rid of "Gimme! Gimme!" is simpler than you think.

The ads now start as soon as Halloween is done. Shiny cars with huge bows on top (what's the surcharge on those bows, I wonder?), do-everything-for-you screens portrayed to make a person's dreams come true, toy after toy after toy tied in to the latest blockbuster movie. Any kid who consumes even the tiniest amount of media is bombarded with the message that the Winter holidays, especially Christmas, involve stuff, stuff and more stuff. That getting material goods equals warmth and love. That the "magic" of Christmas comes from what lies underneath that wrapping paper.

Even kids who don't absorb this message as much through media might still be over-focused on materialism, and far more interested in what gifts await them than any other aspect of the holiday season. Sometimes it's a message we've unknowingly perpetuated ourselves, as parents. Other times it's a product of natural excitement that simply needs to be channeled a little better, or it's an arms race with their friends to see who will emerge with the biggest bag of loot.

If you're feeling like your child could use a little less "Gimme!" and a little more of a focus on what really matters this holiday, here are a few ways to rechannel your family's energy.

1) Make a different type of list. For many kids, one of the first events to usher in the holidays is making a list. Whether for Santa or for their parents, the focus of this list is invariably what they want—or even expect—to be awaiting them under the tree come December 25th. The more time and contemplation they spend on this list, the more the focus narrows into what they will receive, and the stronger the association of receiving stuff as the main theme of the holidays. Why not spend some of this energy helping them make a list of what they want to give to others? From creative things they could make for their teacher to how they might bring a smile to their sister's face, kids often love the secret planning that goes into making someone else happy. They just need to be reminded of it.

2) Encourage creativity. Once they're on the path of giving thought towards others, nudge them into thinking outside the box. Yes, it's great that they know exactly what they want to buy at Target for their brother—and are even willing to spend their own money for it. That's a wonderful start. But even better is moving away from a check-off-the-list-and-pay-the-cash mindset, and more toward something creative. There's no limits to the handmade crafts that they can make—and in this age of Pinterest, with some basic guidance and inspiration it can be worlds away from the macaroni necklaces of yore. Baking is often a hit as well—why not involve them in an afternoon of making some (super-simple) fudge for your mail carrier and your neighbors? Not artsy or kitchen-oriented? Then urge your kid to think about coupons that they can make for people. From letting their brother pick the movie an extra time, to a "get out of jail free" card for their sister to try on their clothes without penalty, the options are endless and likely to bring a smile to giver and receiver alike, no credit card needed.

3) Build traditions that don't involve gifts. Picking out a tree, going on a tour of neighborhood lights, baking and decorating great-Grandma's gingerbread cookies, or singing "Jingle Bells" accompanied by as many bizarre household instruments as you can find-- the things that kids often identify as being the most fun in the buildup to Christmas often having nothing to do with gifting. For parents, it's easy to forget. The magic is there for the making. Try to nurture meaning and connectedness within your family through traditions that are worlds away from "stuff," and instead involve all the other things that can make the holidays feel so special: togetherness, lights, and warmth.

4) Consider experiential gifts. Many parents have felt the twinge of seeing a much-begged-for gift lay dormant by mid-January, or a super-expensive splurge that was "guaranteed" to make their eyes light up end up broken or forgotten mere months later. Material stuff doesn't pack nearly the punch as experiences do, when it comes to meaning, memories, and the longevity of enjoyment. Getting your kids tickets to a special show, planning a day trip to a place they've always wanted to go, or even just letting them choose a day of your time, with them setting the agenda, provides many more opportunities for nurturing your relationship (and learning!) than just an item in their toy box. An added bonus? The time they spend looking forward to the experience, talking about it, and reminiscing about it later on will compound the psychological meaning for them.

5) Consider an annual family service project or donation. Of course, many families incorporate giving throughout the year. Whether this is the case or not, though, why not tie a special type of giving to the holiday season? Developing a tradition built around helping others in need helps make it a fundamental part of the holiday that feels natural and automatic. And when kids are given the chance to have a say and use their creativity, they may discover passions for helping people that last a lifetime. Let them lead the way with their interests: maybe they want to do a food drive, give money to help sick kids, have a hot chocolate stand whose proceeds go toward homeless kids, or even donate some items to an animal shelter. The more personalized and self-directed the experience can be for them, the more they will retain it and the more it will become a permanent part of their holiday mindset.

6) Cultivate gratitude. No, you don't have to bombard your children with upsetting images of suffering across the world, or constantly try to make them feel guilty for complaining about dinner when a vast amount of kids worldwide don't get nearly enough to eat. But giving them some perspective about how much they have is important. Initiate discussions about the ways that holidays are celebrated differently around the world, and the realities that many children don't get much in the way of celebration at all. Build into your discussions a theme of gratitude—for both things and experiences. Help them recognize moments big and small that matter to them and encourage them to be mindful of how feeling loved and safe are special and important and not to be taken for granted. A feeling of gratitude about the small things makes for a happier and less "gimme"-focused child—and yes, that can be encouraged by thank-you notes too!

For more of Dr. Bonior's post on family, holidays, and relationships:

7 Ways to Make Your Most Difficult Conversations Easier

6 Tips for Avoiding Family Drama During Holidays

5 Questions Better Than "How Was Your Day?"

22 Ways That Having Three Kids Is Different Than Having Two

8 Awful Reasons to Get Engaged

Andrea Bonior, Ph.D. is a speaker and licensed clinical psychologist. She is the author of The Friendship Fix and serves on the faculty of Georgetown. Her mental health advice column, Baggage Check, has appeared in the Washington Post Express for more than 10 years. She speaks to audiences large and small about relationships, work-life balance, and goal-setting, and she is a TV commentator about psychological issues. Follow her on Twitter or on Facebook.

Photo credit: Jennifer C (Flickr Creative Commons)

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