Louise McEwanMaybe I am romanticizing when I say that the Christmas of my childhood was not about stuff. There were fewer products, less pervasive advertising and no Black Friday sales. A few pages at the back of the Sears Wish Book were the inspiration for visions of sugarplums dancing in my head.

Surely, the focus on consumerism is affecting our kids and their ideas of happiness. To find out, I once talked with Mike Ferry, author of Teaching Happiness and Innovation, whose research on happiness focuses on children.

It turns out that my instinct was correct. Ferry sees consumerism as a “big problem” for kids, and a roadblock on the way to becoming appreciative and contented individuals. “In the consumer age, our happiness is based on consuming the latest and greatest and newest.”

This message is not good for our children.

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Over his years of researching the science of happiness, Ferry has bumped into a phenomenon called the abundance paradox: the more we have, the less we appreciate anything. Mass production and cheap labour have created an abundance of readily available goods. As a result, “we live in a throwaway, disposable age. If our kids are growing up within this abundance paradox concept then it’s really hard for them to see the value in things; it’s hard for them to enjoy anything.”

While Ferry points out that “we might be wired to whine,” modelling gratitude for our kids will help them (and us) become more grateful. “If we can teach our kids to practise gratitude in the home, then we will be able to combat some of this abundance paradox and our children will start to appreciate the little things in life and will be much happier as a result.” This is not only good for the child, it is good for society because grateful individuals have a positive impact on the world.

There has always been hype leading up to Christmas morning. With the abundance of goods, advertising and the incessant question, “What do you want for Christmas?” kids can easily get the message that Christmas is about them and their stuff. The emphasis on getting things encourages kids to focus on themselves and ratchet up their wants during the holiday season.

But there is no need to despair. We can help them become more appreciative and aware of others. Ferry has suggestions for practising gratitude with kids in the classroom, some of which I have adapted for Christmas.

Play the gratitude game around the table before a meal. Choose a Christmas-related word and assign each member of the family one letter. Each person names one thing for which they are grateful that begins with their letter (C is for Christmas cookies, H is for home, etc.).

Involve your children in charitable giving. Shortlist a few charities and talk with your child about their work. Let them help you select the one to which you will make a donation. Encourage them to contribute from their piggy bank.

If you are buying a gift for a person in need, let your children help select the gift.

Avoid the free-for-all approach to opening gifts. Take turns. Look at everyone’s gifts, not only your own. Say thank you to those present, and follow up with a phone call or card to those not present.

Everyone wants their kids to be happy on Christmas morning so it can be tempting to go overboard with the gifts. At the same time, we want to raise kids who appreciate the gifts they receive and the people in their lives. For the long-term emotional well-being of our kids, it’s important that we successfully navigate the abundance paradox with them.

Our Christmas memories stay with us for a lifetime. When I look back at the many Christmas celebrations over the decades of my life, I remember moments (like looking through the Wish Book) and not stuff (with the exception of a Chatty Cathy doll that I had desperately wanted, loved much and played with for a very long time).

I remember sitting with the Wish Book on my lap until I had narrowed down my wants before penning that all-important letter to Santa. It was a useful exercise that taught me the wisdom of another paradox: less is more.

Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation. 

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