This Christmas, Give Young Children Your Presence, Not Your Presents

More than a month before Christmas, the stores already are filled with Christmas displays and holiday Carols play over the sound system. Meanwhile, topping the wish lists of children between 5 and 16 is the Apple iPad, followed closely by a half dozen other high-tech – and high-dollar – gadgets.

It’s no wonder that the expectations of a commercialized Christmas fray not only the budget, but also the patience of many households in Memphis and the Mid-South. But are these wallet-busting gadgets really what children, particularly young children, most want (and need) from their parents during the holiday season?

Children Benefit From Quality Time With Parents

Child development experts tell us that what our children most want and need is a far cry from the big-ticket items on their letters to Santa. Instead, as the old saying goes, what children most need is your presence, not your presents.

In their book Unplug the Christmas Machine, Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli offer some useful tips for making Christmas a “joyful, stress-free” time for the family. They suggest four “gifts” that parents can provide:

  1. A relaxed and loving time with family. Children need relaxed attention – when their parents slow down and devote quality time to them. This might mean playing a board game, working together on a jigsaw puzzle, or on baking a cake. For other families, it could mean taking blankets outside on a clear night to look for stars, or going for a walk. No matter how your family does it, enjoyable time together helps to build the bonds between parents and children that promote optimal childhood development.
  2. Realistic expectations about gifts. For children (and adults!), the excitement of the holidays is bound up with the anticipation of gifts. No doubt, children also like to have their expectations met. But it is a gift, Robinson and Staeheli tell us, when parents help children learn to manage their expectations. For some families, this means a three present limit – one each for body, mind and soul. In other families, children learn that Santa’s gift must fit inside a stocking. Parents also help to manage holiday stress by re-examining our own feelings about spending during the holidays. We give children a gift when we help them understand how much is “enough” when it comes to presents.
  3. An evenly paced holiday season. The current commercialized Christmas season extends from the first of November through Christmas day. For many young children, this is way too long, and they are left overwhelmed and unable to appreciate the sights and sounds of Christmas. Robinson and Staeheli suggest that parents dictate their own schedule for the season: Consider tuning in the Christmas music on December 15th, setting up the tree the following week-end, and stretching the season to New Year’s Day.
  4. Reliable family traditions. When adults look back at their most memorable Christmases as children, it’s not the gifts that they remember. Instead, it’s what they did as a family, like decorating the house, attending Christmas Eve church services, helping to serve a meal at the soup kitchen, or visiting their cousins. Kids remember the traditions, not the gifts, and we help them to make enduring memories by establishing family traditions.

Children Benefit from a Safe and Loving Environment

To these four gifts, we would add another: the greatest gift that parents can give their children this, or any, time of the year is the feeling of love and security. Counseling psychologist Judith Safford reminds us that love is a child’s “most elementary and important” psychological need. A loving parental relationship builds an environment of trust in which a child can thrive.

A parent’s love and adoration teaches a small child that he is unique and important. When parents impart feelings of security and self-worth, they give their child the gift of a solid lifetime foundation based on positive early development.

From all of us at The Urban Child Institute, this is our wish for all young children in Memphis this holiday season.

To read more:

Diana Loomans with Julia Godloy. What All Children Want Their Parents to Know.
Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli. Unplug the Christmas Machine.
Judith Safford. “Why do children need parents?” Retrieved from: