From Healthy Matters: Making This Holiday Season Meaningful, Not Material: Interview With Parenting Expert Marie Marchand
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This article was independently written by Healthy Matters and not sponsored. It is informative only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice

The holidays can be a stressful time for parents. Between fitting in holidays catch ups, booking flights to visit overseas family and decorating the house, there is a lot to think about during the holiday season. Add a lengthy and expensive wish list of toys and family stress can be at a high at just the time of year we’re supposed to be enjoying time together. We checked in with Marie Marchand, consultant and trainer at Parenting Dialogue, to talk about ways to make the holidays more about meaning and less about gifts. 

We are surrounded by marketing aimed at children, especially during the holiday season. With all this temptation, how can we manage our children’s expectations of how many gifts they will receive? 

It is tricky for children to keep their expectations low when parents make such a big deal about Santa. Many parents talk about Santa throughout the year: telling children that Santa will bring them their wish list if they’re nice, they go to bed on time, they brush their teeth, etc.  Children’s hopes and excitement are built up and then they’re often disappointed when they don’t get exactly what they wished for.

At an early age, I think that parents must think about the values they want to teach their children around this celebration and stick to them as they are preparing for it. They need to share their thoughts with their children and explain these family values. This is called ‘taking time for training’.

If on Christmas day, my child expects to see a roomful of gifts, only to be presented by a more reasonably-sized pile, how do you suggest managing their disappointment?

I would suggest a method of ‘prevention’ instead of dealing with disappointment by telling the children well in advance what is going to happen ‘this year’ for Christmas. Talk less about presents and more about family, friends and, if applicable, faith. I suggest that traditions start early and that parents stick to them. For example, my parents always had a family game under the tree. We were excited to open it as we got to play as a family for days after Christmas. Spending time together was as important, if not more, than getting presents. Additionally, you can decide as a family what your ideas are for ‘this Christmas’. Two ideas are: having members of the family make something for each other (a piece of art, baking, a framed photo, etc.) or picking a family member’s name from a basket and giving this person a voucher for something like doing the dishes when it’s their turn or sharing a skill.

If you have decided to cut back on holiday gifts this year, tell your kids why before you sit down around the tree. Teach the children to appreciate special moments spent as a family instead of the amount of presents that are under the Christmas tree.

Teaching children the ‘etiquette’ of what to do when receiving a present is also very important. Parents should role model showing their appreciation by writing thank you cards, receiving gifts with a smile, giving a hug, saying thank you and saying something nice about the gift received.

And how can we get kids excited about the holiday season without focusing just on gifts?

Parents must think about the rituals and traditions that they want to pass on to their children. As a family, we plan to see cousins, aunts, uncles and friends; we bake cookies, cupcakes, meat pies; we decorate the house; we each choose a special activity that we would like to do as a group during the holidays; and we organise to visit a charity and donate our time or some money.

What kind of effect does giving kids a huge pile of presents over the holidays have on them in the long term?

Having lots of toys and huge piles of presents is not beneficial to children long term. With too much, the children lose opportunities to use their imagination and creativity to play and find ways to have fun and be involved in something. Children with lots of toys might lack interpersonal skills as they seek less playmates and therefore lack experience in communicating, cooperating and resolving conflicts.

Children with less ‘stuff’ are found to be more caring, more resourceful, less selfish and love to explore nature. They also obviously live in less cluttered room!

In Hong Kong, some kids have grandparents, aunts and uncles who live abroad so might not be able to spend time with them over the holidays. What are some ways overseas relatives can show their love (and make sure they’re not forgotten!) without piling on the presents?

Relatives can send cards, emails, small care packages or photos. Schedule a Skype session when children are not too tired and can talk to their cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. They can show each other their decorated house and share some of their traditions, show what they have cooked and baked and discussed their Christmas wishes and activities. It can sometimes be challenging to speak to children on the phone or on Skype as their attention may wane so relatives could prepare a list of simple questions ready to ask the children about living abroad and ask about some of the cultural events they’re involved in in Hong Kong. This can help children feel proud to share their knowledge and feel that their relatives are really interested in them at this special time of the year.

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Marie Marchand B.Ed parent, City Kids preschool principal, teacher, parenting consultant and co-author of bestselling children’s book Home from Home, has over 29 years of international experience teaching in Canada, Switzerland and Hong Kong. She is asked by parents, schools and different organisations to run private sessions, workshops and seven-week courses on all matters relating to successful parenting and teaching.