“Is the Gift-Giving Season Spoiling Your Kids
– or Your Joy?”

Around this time each year, I, like just about everyone else in the United States, am buying gifts. Gift-giving can be a wonderful aspect of this season, but it can also be a source of stress and upset. Jews want to celebrate – but not commercialize – Hanukah, and Christians, no doubt, feel the same way about Christmas.

When you think back to your childhood, how many holiday gifts do you actually remember? The answer is probably: very few. What we remember, instead, are the people and rituals: watching Uncle Mortie come through the front door with packages and good cheer, tracking snow into the house; baking cookies or frying up latkes with Grandma; or standing at the front window, singing songs and blessings with the family.

When we do recall a stand-out gift, it isn’t really because of the material object. We enjoyed the Easy-Bake oven or Hot Wheels set, but that’s not what made an impression. The gift was beloved because it told us that we were beloved. We felt understood, valued, and cared for.

I remember with great fondness a large stuffed pink llama that I got on the eighth night of Hanukah when I was eight. I loved that gift because it signaled to me that I was known. I remember shouting with glee to my mother, “How did you know I wanted this, when I didn’t even know I wanted this?!” I kept that llama for years.

Gift-giving that is focused on things is ultimately an empty experience. Gift-giving that is focused on the relationship between the giver and receiver – and therefore the meaning of the gift within that relationship – provides meaning as well as fun. As givers, we try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; we think about what they want and who they are. This is not just good for the relationship and the recipient; it is good for the soul of the one who gives.

The following ideas will, I hope, help families to establish healthy boundaries and loving customs around gift-giving. Inoculating kids against acquisitiveness, greed, and commercialism is (sometimes) as easy as a,b,c:

A – Account for outside gifts: When children receive a lot of gifts at once, they are, ironically, less appreciative. There is a tendency, especially among young kids, to plough through the pile and then demand, “what else is there?” You may want to give your children a gift on each night of Hanukah, but remember that aunts & uncles, cousins, and grandparents are likely to send or bring gifts. One gift each night may mean that you need to buy only one gift, and then allow a different friend or relative the limelight – and your child’s appreciation – on seven of the eight nights. You can also pool ideas and resources with relatives or draw names for “mystery Maccabbees” (the Jewish equivalent of “secret Santas”) so each child receives a few gifts that he or she really wants, rather than a mountain of items.

B – The box is more interesting than the gift, so wrap what they will need to get anyway. If you over-spend on gifts, you send the message that material things are vitally important and that love is monetized and measured in dollars. Especially for little ones, the box is often just as interesting as the gift. So wrap up barrettes, warm socks, winter pajamas, or other items that the kids need anyway. Demonstrate your caring by choosing their favorite colors and giving them the box to play with, not by going into debt!

C – Communicate your values in the way you give gifts – not just apart from them. One family I know has established the third night of Hanukah as “book night” – each family member buys at least one other person a book as a gift. This re-enforces the joy and habit of reading and the value of education.

To cultivate peace and love in the home, some families make it a rule that siblings must buy one another gifts. When the children are older, they can use allowance money. It’s a great lesson in thinking of others and in self-restraint to bring a child to ToysRUs for the sole purpose of buying a present for her brother.

You can also bring gifts to those outside your family circle. One Jewish family I know gets dressed up as elves and delivers gifts on Christmas to a local Ronald McDonald House where families of children who are hospitalized stay. Another family exchanges gifts on the fifth night of Hanukah each year at a homeless shelter, where they also cook for and bring gifts to the residents. If you have neighbors who are alone, it’s a great mitzvah and a terrific lesson for your kids to bake cookies and make a card, and then deliver those items in person. Remembering and giving gifts to postal workers, teachers, the synagogue custodian, and other people who routinely help our families is a wonderful expression of “hakarat hatov” – acknowledging the good that others do for us.

D – Dare to be different. Hanukah is a holiday that celebrates difference. Antiochus wanted to force Jews to pray, eat, believe, and act as he did. The Maccabbees fought for the right to be different. It is a terrible irony that this holiday, above all others, is a time when many Jewish families feel the need to imitate their Christian neighbors (Hanukah Bush, indeed!) or to buy into the buying frenzy of American Mall culture.

When my brother’s boys were young, the Pokeman craze was at its height. The videos always ended with a manic, repetitive message about the Pokeman cards, “Gotta get ‘em all! Gotta get ‘em all! Gotta get ‘em all!” My brother, Rafy, used to tell his boys, “No, that’s not right. You’ve got to get one, and then really enjoy it.”

If you want to raise a mentsch, you will have to buck the commercialism of the culture, say “no” to some material things, and dare to be the family that doesn’t have every latest gadget or fulfill their child’s every desire.

E – Experiences over items. All the social science research has confirmed what common sense has long-since known: experiences bring more happiness than things. When people spend money on an experience the joy of it lasts. We savor the memories. We remain more connected to the people with whom we shared the experience. A new thing, shiny and bright and desired as it may be, loses its luster quickly and becomes part of our new (and probably scratched-up) normal.

Maybe you have experiences from your own childhood that you would like to pass on to the next generation. Bring all the ingredients to your sibling’s house and then cook a dish you learned to make at your grandmother’s knee with your nephews, nieces, and/or kids.

Give an activity as a gift for at least one night of the holiday: a family night at the ice rink or bowling alley, a trip to the museum, a play or other performance that you enjoy together. Or, better yet, do a mitzvah together as a family: help build with Habitat for Humanity, bring balloons to a children’s hospital, or help set the tables for your synagogue’s Hanukah dinner. Hanukah is a wonderful time to give children the gift of your presence –something much more valuable than its homonym, mere presents.

F – Family mottos. The Maccabbees had a family motto: “Acharye! All those who are faithful, follow me!” Children, especially young children, learn values and behavior from short statements that are repeated often. They can understand the meaning right away on some level, and relate to it more deeply over time. As a mom, I have often been saved by the pre-school refrain, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.”

Here are a few Hanukah family mottos I like:

· People are more important than things.

· Togetherness over toys!

· It’s good to get, and it’s even better to give.

· Thank you for thinking of me.

· Give with love and receive with gratitude.

You can borrow these or create your own mottos. If you make Hanukah decorations or cards proclaiming your mottos, all the better.

G – Gratitude and Good Examples. I learned a rule from Rabbi Jane Litman, which I have used with my own kids. We don’t open a new gift in my house until we have inspected, enjoyed, and written a thank you note for the last one. This teaches the importance of expressing gratitude, and it also helps kids to pause and appreciate each gift, cultivating gratitude in that way as well. Saying thank you is not only polite; it is holy. It fulfills the value of “hakarat hatov,” acknowledging the good. It reduces a sense of entitlement, and increases the sense that we are, indeed, blessed.

In the expression of gratitude, in every aspect of gift-giving and -receiving, as in every sphere of life, kids will imitate what you do. If you set the example by valuing experiences over items and the meaning of the holiday over its “goodies,” your children will learn more from that than from anything you can say.

A traditional High Holiday greeting is also a propos for the season and occasion of gift-giving. “Sheyemalu kol mishalot libchem letovah. May all the yearnings of your heart be fulfilled, for the sake of what is good.” That doesn’t mean anything so trivial as, “may you get that catalogue item you’ve had your eye on.” It means: may you get what you truly and deeply want. May you receive love, acceptance, and understanding, and may you know the joy of giving those gifts to others.

– Rabbi Debra Orenstein