Modeling True Christmas Spirit for Your Children

This article is courtesy of Parenting Teens magazine.

Conversation overheard between two teens in a coffeehouse:

Jessica: "I'm definitely getting a (fill in the blank) for Christmas..."

David: "Wow, that costs like...$500! I'd hate to only have one present to open at Christmas."

Jessica: "Are you crazy? I won't get just one parents load me up! The longer my list is, the more they buy. I think they feel guilty about working all the time, or something. Plus I get tons of gift cards and money from my aunts and uncles, and my grandparents...Christmas is awesome!"

Modeling True Christmas Spirit for Your Children

The tradition of giving gifts at Christmas is a way Christians can celebrate with one another the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, God's supreme gift of love to all humanity. The Magi honored Jesus with gifts, and when we express love for someone by giving a gift, we celebrate the daily richness we experience through God's many blessings to us.

For Christmas, many of us ramp up the gift-giving as an annual gesture of love and friendship to family, work colleagues, neighbors, and friends. We want to share God's love for us with those who matter most in our lives. We offer this same love to total strangers by supporting ministries and charitable organizations. Sharing our resources with others is an essential part of what it means to be a Christian-fully loving our neighbors as ourselves. We give, and we receive, in abundance, particularly during the Christmas season.

But when does gift-giving transcend "need" or "wish" to become "greed"? When it comes to buying presents for our teens, we're usually motivated by good intentions and a desire to demonstrate love. Yet in our chaotic, over-scheduled existence-where both parents may work and family members pass like ships in the night-we can be misguided by a false definition of "love."

Love isn't represented by "stuff." It's about relationships-communication and personal involvement. Unfortunately, it's much easier to substitute store-bought "stuff" for the investment of time it takes to develop and nurture healthy relationships. In our hearts we know that money doesn't buy happiness, and we deeply sense the need to put the brakes on holiday spending. But we wonder what that decision will mean to the teen who measures his father's love by the number of presents under the tree?

Rev. Paul S. Frank, pastor emeritus at St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Hendersonville, Tennessee, explains that when a parent can't be physically present, he or she introduces an object to hold a child's attention and to satisfy the need for love. These might include a new toy, an iPod, clothes, or any number of substitutes for time. As a child grows to adolescence, peer pressure takes over, leaving parents trapped in a frenzied race to "keep up with the Joneses."

"Parents experience false confidence in their ability to demonstrate love when they buy their children everything they want," Rev. Frank says. "Many adults cannot remember quality time or family events from their childhood years, but are quick to recall a bicycle, video game, or action figure hero they received. Christian parents need to take back family time and quality time with their children, in order to have a lasting effect upon the molding of a child's heart, mind, and soul."

Material "stuff" is only temporal, and therefore temporary. The excitement of opening a huge pile of gifts on Christmas morning quickly fades, particularly for teens who are habitually conditioned to receive everything on their list, and more. Parents feel hurt, frustrated and angry when the abundant Christmas gift-giving joys of last week are replaced with a teen's lengthy Valentine wish list-proof that no amount of material "stuff" can satisfy our need for personal connection through relationship.

Wise parents know that taking your teen fishing or sitting on the back porch at sunset and talking about her fears and concerns over a soda are priceless. These personal moments can reinforce the kind of parent-child bonds that will sustain children through the difficulties of life. Children crave and really need the presence of parents who are actively engaged in their lives on a daily basis. Parents must remember that even though our teenagers resemble adults in body, they are still children who depend on us, even if they protest to peers that such dependence isn't "cool." Deep down, teens cherish the unconditional love their parents have for them, and they want to taste it through time spent together in a way that can't be substituted by "stuff."

God creates us to be in relationship with Him and with one another. But during the holiday season, temptation turns our focus inward until we lose sight of anything but ourselves. Retailers capitalize on this, working hard to convince us that we really need things that we could probably live just fine without. The danger is that we miss out on "God With Us" and have to settle for "Us Without God" as a sorry substitute.

You and your family can successfully cut back on the Christmas over-spending, without the excess drama, tears, or the misguided perception that less "stuff" equals less love. It's all in the presentation and the establishment of improved connections.

Teens watch their peers (and some adults) carefully to validate their own maturity, growth, and "cool factor." This is how teens learn to become confident in who they are. Parents who spend time with their teens become the safe harbor against the intense peer pressure adolescents experience. When your child whines and pleads that only an expensive pair of jeans will prevent her total social rejection, what she's really asking for is your affirmation that you (and God) love her just as she is. Teens need adults to establish clear boundaries and fair rules to guide them, so they can gain independence through wise choices that have been modeled for them.

Parents aren't "hip friends" to affirm or fulfill a teen's every wish and desire. Children may be God's gift to parents, but wise parents are God's role models for children who have not yet matured to competent decision-making.

Parents who model shopping restraint, household budgeting, and a commitment to saving money over spending it can teach their children to distinguish between genuine needs or wishes and greed for material possessions, which ultimately fails to satisfy our hunger for personal relationships.

You can start by establishing proper boundaries in many areas of life. For the holidays, that would include limits on gift-giving, but it could expand to things like clothing allowances, curfews, and rules the rest of the year.

Once you've identified the boundaries, communicate them clearly and enforce them fairly. Creating and sticking by limits ensures the type of day-to-day investment in a teen's maturity that results in a child's confident, independent future.

You also need to talk candidly to your children about what the giving of gifts really means - both to the giver and the recipient. Kids may not publicly pressure each other to cut back the Christmas gift list in favor of hanging out with Mom or Dad, but perhaps this is exactly what God has placed in their hearts. They just don't know how to tell you about their desire for your undivided attention instead of "more stuff."

Suggest that your family should take the opportunity to re-prioritize your wish lists. Establish a per-family member spending limit or exchange names instead of showering everyone with gifts that no one can afford. Think about replacing the 10-second "unwrapping frenzy" with shared stories over hot cocoa about favorite Christmas moments past.

Of course, we need to point our teenagers toward the supreme example of gift-giving. God gave Jesus Christ to the world to redeem us from our sins. And Jesus Christ gave His own life to fulfill God's promise of salvation.

Your actions can speak volumes to teens about selfless service in the example of Christ. Make charity a line item on the Christmas gift budget and serve together as a family in a homeless shelter or by delivering hot meals to lonely senior citizens.

Parents have the unique opportunity to model the true spirit of Christmas for their children: sacrificing self (in contrast to satisfying self) represents the joy delivered to us by Christ. It's a joy we can all share with one another at Christmas-and every other day of the year.

Bunkie Lynn is a freelance writer and editor from Hendersonville, Tennessee. She has worked as a youth leader in a local church and enjoys writing about topics on faith and families.

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