It’s November, which means the holiday season is upon us and articles will start hitting your social media newsfeeds. Written by thoughtful mothers who want to minimize the materialistic nature of the holidays, they’ll be charming but frank treatises about well-intentioned extended family members who lavish young children with lots and lots of unnecessary gifts. They may encourage benefactors to consider gifting experiences instead of material things, making donations to charity in lieu of easily forgotten toys, or they may advise parents on how to simplify gift giving in their own families, reining back the barrage of wrapped goodies and giving kids less lavish, more practical gifts instead.
I think all of these ideas, and the sentiment behind them, are admirable and worth consideration. It’s true that we have long been a culture of possessions. I can understand the desperation behind a mom who pleads with doting grandmothers and cooing aunts and uncles, please stop giving my kids more stuff! even as she daily claws her way through a house cluttered with things. We are a culture of excess, and it is easy, in the throes of wondering what to do with all the clutter, to ask others to stop adding to the heap.
But I have to admit that this year, as the first of these messages has started to infiltrate my consciousness, that I think it’s fair to ask the question—what are we teaching our kids about materialism the other eleven months of the year? I totally understand the feeling of frustration that comes when it seems my efforts to raise my kids a certain way are being undermined. No one wants their hard fought battles against materialism to fall in the face of holiday excess. But if our battle against materialism can be truly overcome by one month of celebration, what does that say about how well we are fighting the good fight the rest of the year?
Every rule has its exceptions, but I tend to believe that one day, or even one holiday season, of material indulgence cannot override a year’s worth of daily simplicity practices. I don’t mean to suggest that that’s a good reason for over indulgence, and I love the thoughtful and creative gift ideas that make the rounds this time of year—a museum membership, gift certificates for a family movie night, or three months of piano lessons are all great non-cluttering ways to give a memorable gift. But if we are asking people to refrain from giving things because we already have a mountain of things in the kids’ rooms or the basement or the playroom or in every nook and cranny in the house, isn’t it worth examining where all that original clutter—the stuff we ask our loved ones not to add to—came from?
If you feel like your kids already have too much stuff, get rid of some of it. Pare down. If you feel overwhelmed by the task of cleaning and organizing because you have so many things but not enough places, it may be time to let go of some things. So many of us nostalgically think back to a simpler time and speak disparagingly of the excesses available to our children, but it’s time we took a harder look at who is providing that excess. We are the gatekeepers. We are the ones who give access, give opportunity, give stuff.
It has become trendy to advertise on social media that we don’t want more stuff around holiday time, but are we holding ourselves to that same standard throughout the year? Are we teaching our kids the virtue of patience? Of the value of hard work? Of how to say no in a world of yes yes yes? When was the last time your child asked you for an indulgence—one you had both the desire and the cash to give—and you still said no? Are you giving your kids pajamas and copies of Huckleberry Finn on Christmas just so you can shower them in the new year with bargain buys you scored in the post-holiday sales?
I admire those who are willing to go against the grain and endeavor to teach their kids gratitude and simplicity in the midst of a culture gone mad over material wealth. Saying no to stuff is no easy task in a society that equates the latest trend with a person’s very worth. But gratitude and simplicity are cultivated over months and years of practice, not through grand public gestures or demands made of well-meaning relatives. If you want to teach your kids simplicity, live it. If you want to teach them gratitude, model it. Then you won’t have to worry quite so much about a birthday or holiday indulgence. Then you can simply accept a gift and say thank you. There is virtue in that as well—teaching our children to be gracious receivers. Perhaps it’s time we stopped making demands of the givers, and started to live the life we want our kids to emulate. All year long.