I love Christmas time. It’s the most wonderful time of the year (if the song is to be believed).
I’ve been the same all my life. As a child, I marked the countdown with an advent calendar (which, to the shock of my kids didn’t used to feature a nugget of chocolate behind every door, but instead a small festive picture to mark each passing day). I would re-read festive books and re-watch favorite Christmas TV series’ and movies; with the skills of a marketing genius I would build myself into a frothing frenzy of festive anticipation by the time Christmas day came around, or before.
I may have matured a little since and I’m able to sleep uninterrupted on Christmas Eve without listening for sleigh bells. It hasn’t quashed the joy of the anticipation which if anything, is heightened.
I try and keep it in check though by banning from the house all decorations, Christmas movies and music and the consumption of mince pies and mulled wine until December 1st or later. It’s not a policy that’s won me favor with the wife and kids but my motives are positive. I want to maintain a sense of perspective, to reinforce that if we’re going to enjoy the end-of-year festivities and celebrate for a few days by exchanging gifts and overeating and drinking, then surely we can confine the anticipation to just one month of the year? Better to make it one good month than a tedious two?
I wanted to get the above disclaimer in to ensure that you don’t think of me as someone who can’t feel festive delight or revel in the anticipation just as much as the event itself.
Scrooge, I am not.
My reflections today are prompted through observing the annual ritual of my kids preparing their Christmas lists.
When I was a child (there’s the statement I hoped to avoid) I recall the challenges of writing my list of gifts that I hoped to receive. Thanks to my parents apparent fast-track communication with Santa, it ensured that at least some of the items would appear beneath the tree on Christmas morning.
I appreciated the season of good cheer, but more importantly Christmas was the chance to get some new toys or to push the boundaries of my material life, to request some coveted item that would bring new meaning to my life. I can’t remember a single Christmas spent feeling anything other than delighted with the gifts I received, surrounded by love and festive joy; for that reason and many others I feel blessed for my childhood and upbringing.
As my reminiscences become wistful and my hindsight more rose-tinted it strikes me how much the act of preparing a Christmas list has changed. As a child my research was confined to toy commercials on TV, items I’d spotted in a shop or catalogue. My expectations were thus limited around what my parents (sorry, Santa) might provide me with and I assumed that what I wanted had to exist on the shelf of a shop somewhere in a town near me. At a stretch it might come from a shop in London (in my juvenile mind, a mysterious and wonderful place where shop shelves groaned under the weight of exotic toys the likes of which I could only dream).
Today the assumption is that pretty much any product, be that a toy, article of clothing or item of technology can be obtained for the right price and with priority shipping from anywhere in the online-world. Therein lays the quandary for the accommodating parent who is hoping to keep their kids’ feet on the ground when it comes to composing their list. The only limit is that enforced by them and their budget, and kids know this too even if their belief in Santa remains intact.
I recall a particularly landmark year for my eldest daughter. She was 12 or 13 and as Christmas loomed it was clear that she knew exactly what she wanted and expected. For context, she’s a hard worker and academically astute but like most teens, prone to taking the path of least resistance when it comes to school work. Contrasting this work ethic to the time and effort applied to the Christmas list she handed to me and it was obvious where her priorities lay.
The list itself was truly a thing of beauty, and no small miracle of desktop publishing; A single side of A4 paper, it detailed desired items with a list of stores, web links, current prices and a ranking system to ensure we understood her priorities. The finished article was rolled up like a University Diploma, tied with string in an ornate bow. She’d gone as far as holding initial briefing calls with her grandparents, aunts and her mother to ensure they were agreed on what each was expected to buy for her.
The arrival of the list elicited mixed emotions; I’ve still got my copy in a file somewhere as I want to reminisce over it in years to come alongside finger-paintings and past school reports with a sense of nostalgic amusement. At the time there was a sense of despair when we considered how our baby could have become so fixated on organized material gain. The spirit of Christmas seemed to have well and truly evaporated.
Far from criticizing her for being materialistic (for she is a product of the world she lives in and the parenting she has received from us) I now see the same traits emerging in her younger sisters and brother (now aged 14, 12 and 9).
One evening recently, child number three (the 12-year-old boy) undertook 10 minutes of maths homework with begrudging-resistance, his mantra being to get the bare-minimum done in the least time required to the lowest acceptable standard.
He then applied himself to a diligent 90 minutes online, researching and writing his Christmas list (the third draft), annotating and cross-referencing the already-comprehensive notes prepared the previous evening. If the work ethic applied to the two tasks were reversed I’m confident that he’d be graduating from Cambridge within 5 years.
I’ll confess at this point that the rest of this article in its first draft descended into a rant over the challenge of combatting materialism in kids and how Christmas plays-to and encourages this trait. The article also reflected on the year-round frustrations I feel as a parent in response to the relative efforts my kids will apply towards the tasks that they want to do in comparison to those (e.g. homework) that they have to do.
It was only when I opened my mind to considering alternative explanations that it struck me there might be another factor at play besides their consumerist nature or my Victorian-Dad expectations of diligence and work-ethic.
Modern life undoubtedly encourages greater consumerism in our kids who are able to identify and covet absolutely any material product that exists in the world. They also know that with the money and a short wait it can be theirs. Social media and the cult of celebrity also instils the belief that anyone can have anything they want, and furthermore that they should have exactly what they want, at all times. This is a sad reality of modern life and it’s down to the individual parent to find their own balance between giving in to this and sticking to their principles. Nobody wants their children to be the ones who go without but I suspect we all wrestle with the intention not to allow them to become spoiled brats. We want them to value the things they have as well as have the things they want.
As far as my other frustration, well when did any kid ever get on and do their homework willingly and voluntarily when faced with a choice between that and something they really want to do?
A key factor is the relationship between the relevant motivation and enthusiasm that kids (and adults) engage with anything is in how it fits with their own higher-values.
We all have our own values that dictate our priorities, inform our world view and shape our beliefs. Through these, our values shape our actions and they are the guiding principles, our operating system for determining what makes us tick.
Accepting that values drive the actions of my kids, and upon re-examining their actions it then seems obvious that they were driven by more than an inherent desire to accumulate material possessions. Kids (and adults) are allowed to be excited about Christmas and the prospect of asking Santa for new things. In each example however, they were both demonstrating this desire but in a way that brought out their passion and their values. They were also emphasizing and honing skills that I suspect will one day become a large part of their identities, their adult lives and their work.
My daughter was employing her passion and skill as an artist to create a list that was not only filled with facts and information to convey her wishes, but that was also visually appealing and tastefully presented. Over-engineered certainly, but pretty, nonetheless.
She will shortly be starting an Arts degree at University (a few years have passed since ‘the list’) and I’m sure that whatever she does in adult life, she will tend towards the visual and the aesthetic in whatever work she produces. Creation and consumption of art is one of her passions and aligns with her values to live a life centered in creativity.
In the case of my son, he has a keen mind for detail and an encyclopedic knowledge on topics that fire his imagination. He may not leap with joy at the sight of a sheet of mathematics problems, but he can relay details of the 2016/17 Manchester United Football season (and the one before it) to an impressive level of detail. Researching his Christmas list to the level he did, demonstrated his diligence and an attention to detail on topics that align to his higher values and interests that I’m sure will serve him well in life and his career.
His use of modern technology with zero assistance and supreme focus demonstrate just how seamlessly technology and its use is embedded in him and how he thinks.
As I continue to learn as a parent, it’s very easy to jump to conclusions when my child does (or doesn’t do) something. Understanding the cause doesn’t always excuse the action (or effect) but at least it can help offer an alternative perspective and help explain it. In instances like the above, it can also help to recognize the positive traits and behaviors which should be encouraged, not quashed.
That can help to plan future strategies for adapting my behaviors or expectations rather than blindly hoping for something different.
I have many memories of Christmases past, and some that are artificially vivid thanks to oft-viewed family photos. One such memory, possibly representing my best ever Christmas present was of a cowboy dressing-up costume comprising a fringed trouser and waistcoat combo made by my Mum and a Leather pistol holster crafted by my Dad. At the age of about 5, the photo of me and my sister that Christmas morning (she wearing the nurses outfit with similar home-made provenance) epitomizes to me the sentiment that I want to recapture for my kids in giving them memorable Christmases for years to come.
That isn’t to say that I’ll be ignoring the lists they’ve all so diligently crafted and eschewing the crowds heading out pre-Christmas shopping frenzy, in favor of hand-made gifts. Or maybe I will, after all there’s that other adage about gifts and giving;
“It’s the thought that counts!”
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