I had just turned off the evening news and was on my way to the kitchen to begin dinner when Lizzie ran up to me, grabbed my waist and with very serious eyes, looked up to me and asked me this question. "Mommy, what if Santa can't afford Christmas this year?"
Lizzie had been in earshot of the evening news and no doubt heard enough of the financial woes and was concerned. I hesitated, not wanting to scare her, but also not wanting to lie to her. Her father and I had expressed concern about bills, the holidays, and taxes–all of which may have contributed to Lizzie's question and concern. I wasn't sure what a 7-year-old should be told; but since I had always prided myself in open discussion, I decided to take the time and talk with Lizzie in an effort to answer her question.
You don't have to be a news buff to be aware that times are tough right now. Protests are happening in every country including our own, news of banks making money but still charging a checking fee for customers; and there is fighting between politicians with ranting and raving depending on where their support dollars are coming from. It's crazy, and on a more basic level, every household is trying to re-budget and pay back debt. Many of those households are full of children with holiday wish lists longer than your credit card receipts.
Parents with children such as Lizzie will be more effective at teaching their children the true meaning of the holidays, the depth of family love, and mentoring responsible spending if they take these sorts of questions seriously. Lizzie asked a serious question in her 7-year-old mind.
Five Important Tips
You can use these tips again and again as the holidays grow closer.
1. Santa has nothing to do with money.
Santa is about feeling loved and cared for. The toy you love most, and that will make you feel most loved, is the one Santa will try his best to get. It is important that as a parent, you help guide your child with gift requests. If you know your child wants a $100 toy, and you can only afford $50, then suggest another toy that would make your child feel just as loved. Don't do this in a critical manner, but in a loving, supportive manner. Something such as this, "I know you want that toy, but that is so much money for one toy. What other toy could you get that would make you feel just as loved?" If you do this with a loving tone of voice, you are teaching compassion, understanding, and problem solving.
2. Reassure your child that adults like the spirit of the holidays too, and they are not going to let a Christmas go by–no matter how poor they are–without celebrating.
No matter who you are, you should make every effort to celebrate holidays with your child. No matter what holiday you celebrate, children learn from the ritual and the spiritual concepts that surround the holidays.
3. Make the focus of the holidays on friends and family.
Look at "wish lists" but also promote thinking of others. Children are very egocentric at young ages; that means it's more important for parents not to be. Children who turn into generous, compassionate, and loving adults were nurtured by loving, compassionate and generous parents. You don't have to be wealthy to be generous, loving and compassionate. Perhaps try sorting out good but used toys or books that are no longer age appropriate and going with your child to donate them to a children's hospital or shelter where these might be greatly appreciated.
4. Parents need to set a budget for gifts and stick to it.
The best gifts of all are the ones that cost the least, but speak the loudest of love and caring. Last year, a friend of mine bought me three pairs of running socks (I am a runner. I use these every single day). Inside the toe of each sock, she rolled up a slip of paper that had a quote of something I had said to her that meant the most throughout the year. Six quotes—so meaningful. It was my favorite gift. The idea of giving a gift is thinking of what the person would like, or letting them know how they touched your life.
5. Let Lizzie know frequently, and any other child, that the economic crisis may mean everyone has less, but it will never take away their family.
Santa may not be giving out as many gifts, but that's okay because you have the best gift of all with one another. Children (and parents) who are reassured that their family is strong and loving can endure this and anything else.
To be honest, Lizzie, you may not get the biggest, most expensive toy this year, but the holidays will have more love than last year because the bigger you get, the more loving you become, and the more grateful I am to be your parent.
Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC, is a licensed psychotherapist and co-author with Janine J. Sherman, of Start Talking: A Girl's Guide for You and Your Mom About Health, Sex or Whatever.