Last Christmas my ex-husband and I gave each of our three children $50 to spend on gifts for family members. This was a marked departure from our past conviction that they either make gifts or cobble together their sparse allowances to buy small tokens.

I had mixed feelings about this change. On one hand I liked it. At 8, 11 and 15 they had outgrown their interest in drawing pictures and making crafts for one another and wanted to show their love and appreciation with gifts that were more enduring and useful. They wanted to be able to shop and buy as freely as their parents and to feel that their gifts had equal merit under the tree.

Yet another part of me cringed at the thought of giving them each $50. I abhor the commercialization of Christmas and feared that this approach would reinforce that attitude. Yet I also knew that denying them this relatively small amount would be somewhat duplicitous. We lavished store-bought gifts on our children; why should we expect them to feel satisfied giving homemade items?

Finally, I had a somewhat ulterior motive for trying this new approach. Since my ex-husband and I separated and divorced three years ago, our Christmas gifts had been fewer. After all, spouses are the ones to ring the tree with packages for each other. The first year I averted the likelihood of receiving no personal gifts by buying my own items, wrapping them and placing them under the tree. That, I found, was a joyless and empty approach. The second year I did without gifts and felt sad and bereft after the gift-opening session. Receiving nothing exacerbated the feelings of loss associated with my divorce and the holiday season. So, I reasoned, a more proactive, healthy and fun solution would be to give the children the opportunity to bestow small gifts on all of us. Their father agreed and together we came up with the $50 amount.

The children were thrilled with the suggestion. And when I later saw the responsibility, thoughtfulness and pleasure they took in selecting gifts, I knew that they had gained much more from the $50 than I would have in saving the money for another cause. They learned the joy of giving.

One Saturday afternoon a few weeks before Christmas we walked to the nearby mall to shop. Although the mall is small, it boasts a bookstore as well as computer, women's clothing, sporting goods, kitchen and several other specialty stores. Given the mall's manageable size, I reasoned it would be easy to break into pairs and reconnect throughout the afternoon. First I helped my daughter select books for her older brother and father, while my oldest son took his brother around. Then I handed my daughter off to her older brother and took my younger son shopping for his dad and siblings.

Watching them make selections was eye-opening. It gave me insight into my children's perceptions of each other and gave them a newfound awareness of the challenge of staying within a budget and selecting gifts that others would appreciate. Not an easy task. Their only previous Christmas obligation had been to come up with wish lists for themselves. Yet they handled this new responsibility with surprising aplomb. Not one asked for more money and not one complained of growing tired of the process. Instead, each glowed with the excitement of carrying home their purchases, wrapped in and buried under tissue in oversized shopping bags.

There were other rewards. My 8-year-old had his first experience buying something without a parent or sibling present. While we were shopping together he told me he had found something that he wanted to buy for me that was within the $10 price range. But he wanted it to be surprise. After consulting with the sales clerk, we agreed that I would give her the money. Then I would hide in another part of the store while my son selected the item and bought it from that clerk. The strategy worked and 10 minutes later my son and I reconnoitered and then met up with the others -- our shopping expedition completed.

Once home, the children retired to the privacy of their rooms with scissors, tape and paper. They couldn't wait another minute to wrap their gifts and place them under the tree.

On Christmas morning, with excitement barely containable, each begged to be the first to bestow one of their gifts on another family member. I was touched. Instead of clamoring to open their own gifts, each preferred to first experience the joy and anticipation of giving to another. There was a computer game for one, books for several, a fancy trash can for another and a gift certificate for me. Their choices had been well made, showing thoughtfulness and respect for the individual interests of the family members. I shouldn't have been surprised. Children are acutely aware of the wants and wishes of their family members. Christmas shopping done by children isn't the chore or obligation it has become for many adults, but a rare opportunity to demonstrate caring and responsibility for loved ones.

I realized, with this small exercise, that by not previously giving my children small financial resources to shop for family members, I had inadvertently deprived them of one of the joys of the holiday season. Before, I had unconsciously focused their attentions on gifts for themselves and gifts to charity. The first approach led to self-centeredness, while the second lacked the personal touch of watching another open and then use one's gift. Including all three in the Christmas experience -- giving, receiving and donating -- made the holiday more special. It is a practice I intend to continue in Christmases to come.