The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What children need even more than presents this holiday season


I had barely closed the door behind the last trick-or-treater when the first signs of the holiday season began to appear. My inbox is cluttered with emails shouting helpful suggestions for purchasing, decorating and hosting. Our mailbox is stuffed with catalogues. Holiday music accompanies my mall browsing and I spy Santas surrounded by twinkling lights and flashy garlands waiting for visitors to trickle in.

The holidays are upon us, and parents often feel enormous pressure to “get it right.” We want our kids to be happy, and sometimes we feel like we must be ultra-organized, forward thinking and creative to make that happen. Many parents have fond memories of the holiday season from their childhoods. I specifically remember time spent with family. The frantic and rushed pace of regular life would slow down, giving us time to complete 1,000-piece puzzles and play board games while snacking on tasty treats. Other memories include cozy feelings and idyllic scenes, perhaps fabricated through books and song lyrics, as I almost certainly never experienced a sleigh ride, a white Christmas or chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

Sustaining holiday cheer from Thanksgiving until the New Year can be difficult. Despite the joy and delight we think we should be feeling, parents in reality often feel exhausted, stressed and short-tempered. Children can go from euphoria to complete meltdowns in as little as 60 seconds. Families fly from one activity to the next while parents fret over the need to buy ideal gifts. In the rush to create picture-perfect holiday memories, we often fall into the trap of creating giant to-do lists, impossible to successfully complete. And in that shuffle, the really important things — such as time together, traditions and goodwill — get lost.

During the holidays, the developmental priorities and needs of children may become buried under the mountain of expectations we place on our families and ourselves. Although parents intend to build amazing experiences and memories for their families, the effort to achieve that often overshadows the things kids need most. The joy of anticipation, the delight of receiving meaningful gifts and the memories created by participating in holiday rituals are all good things. But it’s also important to keep the following things in mind so everyone can enjoy a successful celebratory season.

Children need to learn that giving and receiving are reciprocal actions. When we give children the opportunity to venture outside their comfort zones and give to others, we help them learn generosity, kindness and empathy. Some age-appropriate activities include visiting nursing homes to play games with residents, volunteering at a local food pantry or delivering toys and presents to others. The crossing guard on the way to school would almost certainly appreciate the delivery of hot chocolate on a cold morning, and the custodians and office staff at school might enjoy handwritten cards along with a plate of cookies.

Are you raising nice kids? A Harvard psychologist gives 5 ways to raise them to be kind

Routines provide structure and a sense of safety and comfort. Basic routines need to be maintained throughout the year. However, holiday traditions are routines that occur in the same way from one year to the next. Some may assume that new and improved ideas to entertain children are needed every year, yet in reality, children want and need holiday traditions repeated year after year. Repetition in the order of events, the menu, the decorations, the stories told and the music played will help children establish memories associated with the holidays. That, more than gifts, is what will make this time of year feel special and treasured.

Anticipating and experiencing special occasions is important for children. While maintaining routines is important, children can also benefit from anticipating and participating in special events. Children love to count down to activities they look forward to, and the holiday season is a perfect time for this. Special occasions call for a break in routines, but parents should recognize that when the special outnumbers the routine, those things are no longer special but rather depleting — especially for kids

Shared stories and memories reflect family values. The holidays provide the perfect opportunity for children to hear family stories passed down through generations. Some families have stories they like to share by reading books aloud. Others pass stories down to children orally, telling and retelling favorite family tales and reliving memories. All these stories can create a sense of continuity and belonging and help pass along the family’s values.

Meaningful interactions with family members make children feel loved. A parent’s presence and full attention may mean more to a child than any gift or experience. Time spent sitting on the floor playing or snuggled up reading a book is never wasted. A parent’s presence at performances in holiday programs communicates to children that they are loved and valued. This feeling of worth is further strengthened when parents offer their full attention to their children and engage in whole body listening and talking.

When parents scale back and slow down they can provide happy memories for their children while also meeting their children’s developmental needs. Keeping those needs in mind can help parents filter out the noise of external expectations associated with the holidays. Parents should give themselves permission to relax, remembering that it is okay to say no, especially if saying no means spending more time with their children.

Merete Kropp is a child development and family specialist and mother of three. Kropp can be found at and @nurturance on Twitter and Nurturance on Facebook.

You can find more parenting coverage at, and sign up for our newsletter here. Like On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, advice and news.

You might also be interested in:

Five ways to avoid being a helicopter parent

After this election, what I can do for my daughter

5 things that happened when I stopped making my kids share