Managing Expectations, Keeping the Focus on What Matters

Parents and gift-givers always want to try to make every kid’s holiday wishes come true. Particularly in times of economic stress, parents want to make the holidays especially magical for kids. Everyone benefits from the joy of kids, and given all the uncertainties this year, we’re going to need that more than ever.

But making magic can be stressful, and many parents tell us that they feel a great deal of pressure to geteverything on a child’s wish list. They tell us that they get frustrated, feel stressed out and even like failures if they don’t score an elusive item. They believe that the holidays will be “ruined” if there isn’t one special toy under the tree. No mater how much they buy, how hard they work to track things down, favors called in or strings pulled; they come up to the holidays feeling depressed and inadequate.

Not much of a way to go into the holidays, is it?

Well, my mom—who knew a lot about kids-having been a teacher of middle school kids and having five of her own—was, I have to say, a genius in this department. She and my dad were both teachers, so they had to keep to a budget. And yet, my brothers and I to this day still are amazed at the bounty of the holidays. And here’s what we each got: one “big” gift from Santa, one gift from my parents and a stocking full of little things. And aside from not getting a live horse, I can’t ever remember not getting something on my list.

As an adult I had many opportunities to talk with my mom about how they did it, particularly as I observed other parents feeling frustrated, and kids being disappointed and holidays if not ruined at least thrown into turmoil. Here are the things my mom did, and some of her perspectives, which have helped many with whom we’ve shared them. Did they make the holidays completely stress free? Not at all, but you never heard a kid whining because he didn’t get something.

  1. Manage expectations about volume. My mom would say, “Santa’s sleigh is big and magical, but it has to carry toys for all the kids in the world, so you’ll want to be very sure about what you ask him for. This would prompt my brothers and me to think a lot about what we wanted—and edit our own lists—and to know from the get-go that we might not get everything we asked for. We knew that we got one big gift from Santa, so we never expected more.
  2. Manage expectations about what kids might or might not get. Some things I’m sure my parents couldn’t afford. Some things might have been hard to get. Mom was very clear that you don’t always get what you ask for. It was a lesson in acceptance and reality that has resonance well beyond the holiday season.
  3. Nurture gratitude. This was not just at the holidays, but all year long. My parents always kept the focus on the things we did have, which was a lot, and they taught us not just to be grateful for what we had but to find ways to make life better for others. However you celebrate the holidays, nothing is more in keeping with their spirit.
  4. Minimize the emphasis on presents. For us, the holidays were filled with activities, family, friends, events at church, school and in our home. Presents were only a small part of the celebrations.
  5. Giving presents is not a test. Get that notion out of your heard right now. It’s only perceived as a test if you make it one. Your value is not dependent on whether you can get a hard-to-get product, the amount you spend or the number of presents under the tree. Ask yourself: Is it really worth it to spend an exorbitant amount or to wait in line for hours? It may be, and then go for it, but you do have a choice.
  6. Remember the words of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln said, “Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” In other words, you have a choice as to how you approach all of this. Be creative. Be thoughtful. Be present. Be loving. Be happy. These more than anything will communicate to the kids in your life—and last them a lifetime.

What I remember is the joy my mother took in Christmas. After she died, there were all kinds of important papers that we had trouble finding. Her financial and legal record keeping was a shambles, and it took weeks to put it all together. Yet, when I opened one of her closets shortly after her death, I found that everything for the holidays from the wrapping paper to the ornaments to the decorations lovingly sorted and organized. She knew what was important to her, and lived consistently with those beliefs. No toy or game could ever have been a better or more lasting gift.

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