The United States is facing record unemployment, foreclosure rates that are astronomical and a recessive economy. From Main Street to Wall Street, this translates into very difficult times for a good majority of us. With Christmas on our doorsteps, how do we help our children understand the stark realities facing so many of our families? This is an area that hits close to the heart of what many people feel about themselves. Unfortunately, we’ve gotten to a place emotionally where earning power equals psychic survival. And because of this, many of our children see things this way.
Now, faced with a leaner Christmas, we are faced with the unpleasant task of dealing with children who expect the world and a tree laden with gifts for them. Too many of us are facing sleepless nights trying to figure out how on earth they are going to deal with not being able to fulfill their wishes. I have dealt with this myself in the two years since my husband died. Last year was very difficult, this year Christmas, as far as gifts go, is out of the question. Are my boys upset? No, they live the day to day reality of struggling to survive and have handled it beautifully. In part, because they’ve become full partners in day to day decisions about what it takes to merely put food on our table.
For parents of children 7 and under, gift buying is still relatively inexpensive, and family helps to fill in the gaps. But after age 7, it gets progressively more expensive to buy for this age group. And it becomes a problem when parents are not open and honest about what is really going on at home. This is an opportunity to help our children grow both in character and understanding of what it takes to survive in the real world. Believe it or not, our children will not drop dead if they are told the truth. Most children would rather have their parents and be part of a family, then to just have things. And we continually underestimate how much our children comprehend about the inner workings of our lives. Talk to your children in plain easy to understand terms. Draw up a chart of your monthly expenses, so they can begin to understand where the money goes.
Ask them if they have any suggestions on areas they would be willing to cut costs on. If they won’t easily participate, make some specific suggestions and ask for feedback. Even if they appear uninterested or even hostile to the whole thing, you’ve planted a seed in their minds. It’s a start. Talk about ways to lower the costs of Christmas. Instead of buying gifts, how about a marathon cookie/candy making weekend? People love homemade goodies. Especially if done with love. If, like us, you simply cannot afford to buy gifts, tell them you’ll still have the special Christmas Dinner. If they are old enough to work, suggest they get a job to finance their wants. Harsh? Maybe, but when they’re out on their own, I can guarantee you, no one will be buying them anything they haven’t earned.
My concern is too many parents with damaged finances, out of a desire to protect their children and their parental images, are going to get a high risk credit card to simply get through the holidays. This is a terrible mistake on two levels. First it sets a terrible financial example for the children, and reinforces an attitude of entitlement no sane person should have. And second: the clock starts ticking on that first payment, which will further increase your financial burden and ultimately end up part of an already abysmal economic picture. It is far far better to share your concerns openly and honestly. It is a healthy step foward to work within your family as a unit. That old saying that a burden shared is a lighter burden applies here.
Many families will come out of this holiday season more mature, more cohesive and with a greater sense of what love means, if they offer every member a chance to be part of the solution. If your children are resistant, I suggest they be “encouraged” to give back. Have a massive clean out of clothing, toys and shoes, and donate to your favourite charity. Instead of giving to one another, go pluck a tag off one of the many gift trees and give a child who’s never had Christmas a reason to smile. Put up lights and the tree. We do. For the children of Oak Park, who live lives of such suffering and neglect. Just to see their tiny faces llight up when they walk by is priceless. And that my friends is what Christmas is truly about.