Christmas photo albums are usually edited into warm, appealing remembrances of the holidays. “Hold up your new game and give me a big smile to show Grandma and Grandpa!” is how parents prompt that classic holiday album shot of a happy child grinning over a present.
Kids had better smile, given parents’ considerable investments in those happy moments. Toy industry analysts estimate that we spend $350 on toys for each child every year in the US. Add to this all the time spent researching and fossil fuels burned acquiring those gifts and the investment in children’s happiness is remarkable.
Why then are there so many videos on YouTube of children bursting into tears as they open a present? Videos can somehow paint a more honest picture than the photo albums, and they have revealed a darker side of the holidays.
Despite some warm memories and the photos to prove them, honesty compels me to admit that gift-giving in our house included many disappointments that we chose not to photo-document. Expensive presents weren’t always appreciated. People pouted about what they didn’t get. Games lost their appeal after a single play. Fights broke out over who started the previous fight.
My wife and I have done our best to understand these stresses in our own home as well as the homes of the special needs families we work with each year. We’ve learned some things the hard way and are happy to share them.
The first lesson is that gifts are “things”, and “things” don’t make people happy. This includes minors. It can be poisonous to hope a child will be made happy with a “thing”, no matter how acutely she believes she wants it. Children who desperately want a certain gift are often so anxious, that all they feel on opening it is relief. How many toys live up to the promised hype?
Sorting through several years of gift-unwrapping photos, I noticed that furrowed brows and puzzled looks were much more common candid reactions than squeals of delight. Occasionally, a thoughtful gifts can delight a child, and that can make for some compelling video moments. But initial interest usually fades. The wait for assembly can be boring for kids and frustrating for parents. Novelty wears off quickly. It’s insane how soon after the big unwrapping one child will say the words that pierce parents’ hearts each Christmas Day: “Mom, I’m bored.”
So let’s get it through our heads before anybody unwraps anything, that $350 doesn’t buy a dream day. It buys the perfect storm of disappointments for everyone involved. It’s a wonder any good photos survive.
Second, adults should be willing to make the unexciting, “wise” choices that have stood the test of time. Building blocks, Lego sets, and classic card or board games may not be exciting to open, but tend to get a lot of use over time. Children can’t predict which toy will become a favorite long after the rest lie broken and forgotten. My own best sleeper present was a box full of 2 x 4 lumber left over from a building project. It made for hours of daily use for many years, but the first time I set eyes on it, I didn’t understand it and pushed it aside.
Third, very few toys pass the test of time, and you can’t always predict which ones will. Every child is different. It’s okay to get rid of the toys that don’t pan out. Craigslist and Goodwill Industries were invented so that we don’t have to warehouse all the wrong choices.
Finally, the best gifts don’t entertain our kids for us, but connect us to them. They often commit our love and time. I don’t remember opening the catcher’s mitt my Dad got for me, but I can sure remember taking some pitches from him that day. My boys were only vaguely interested to unwrap new Christmas skis, but some of our best time together was spent on the slopes or behind a speedboat.
It’s hard for me to imagine how Jesus’ birth or the Hanukkah miracle inspired $350 toy binges. Those are stories about how much God cares for his children. The shepherds who went to visit the newborn Jesus probably expected a spectacle with even more entertainment value than a sky full of angels when they left their flocks to see him. They were probably entirely mystified, if not disappointed, to find a poor family camped out in a barn.
The point of a great gift isn’t how delighted one is on first seeing it. The value is in how it connects us and what it comes to mean over time.
My family joins me in wishing yours a blessed holiday season!