Thanks for reading The Nonlinear Life, a newsletter about navigating life's ups and downs. Every Monday we talk about Words4Life—popular sayings, mottos, buzzwords, table topics. Also, dad jokes! Every Thursday we focus on life transitions, how to turn this period of uncertainty and stress into one of growth and renewal.
The email was on a professional topic. But the plea at the end was urgent and a little desperate.
“My three-year-old runs around the house screaming, ‘I’M A PRESENT MONSTER!’ If you have any advice about how not to turn your children into ‘present monsters’ this holiday season, I’m all ears. 😊”
As it happens, I had just been having a similar conversation with my wife about, ahem, some teenagers we know, so my first reaction was that I’m not sure this problem is limited to toddlers. You may need a booster shot every few years. Also, the nature of the genus Present Monsterus is such that even if parents manage to set some limits, along come the grandparents to blow those limits to smithereens.
Still, based on my experience, some techniques have been known to work in the wild.
1. BEFORE YOU LOOK AT YOUR OFFSPRING, LOOK AT YOURSELF
My default reaction on any parenting pickle, from screen time to eating habits, is that the first place to look for solutions is in the mirror. Are you barking at your children to put down their screens from behind your own screen? Are you nagging your children to eat their broccoli while looting a few peanut butter cups from the candy bowl?
My pal Yalda T. Uhls, the founder and executive director of the UCLA Center for Scholars and Storytellers, says that if your kids have over-inflated expectations for the holidays, maybe you should consider your role in that inflation. “Were you always so worried when you were a child that you wouldn’t get what you really wished for as a present? Or are you trying to recreate or relive your own wishes and joys as a child and have now had this trickle down in some way?”
The first step to lowering their expectations is to lower your hype.
2) FIND YOUR GIFTS BEFORE YOU OPEN YOUR GIFTS
I grew up in a home where parents didn’t like to just hand over gifts. Their solution: All gifts were hidden, and children had to find them before opening them—with a few rules in place to make sure all ages get to share in the discovery.
My wife found this idea silly, but sure enough, my kids loved it. So even today, we still hide presents, and the children love to share stories about The Myth of the Unfound Present--you know, the one that allgedly shows up five years later hidden behind an old stereo speaker with a few layers of mildew and a lot of confusion.
Make your own myths! Make children go trekking for their gifts.
3) FAMILY TIME BEFORE GIFT TIME
This one is pure me, so send the monsters my way to complain. But no gifts are given in my house before a moment of family connection—that moment could be a song, a game, a special food, an impromptu challenge (Every night of Hanukkah this year we played, “Name all the iconic things you can think of with the number two, or three, or seven, etc.”). My favorite thing is a conversation, though my know-it-all teens rolled their eyes more than once when guests came over. “Sorry, we can’t open gifts, Dad says, until we grapple with God.”
4) GET A GIFT, GIVE A GIFT
You’re never too young to start giving gifts as well as receiving them. There’s no reason a three-year-old can’t “buy” or otherwise help pick out a gift for siblings, parents, or even grandparents. The best way to downplay receiving is to up-play giving.
5) YOU’RE NEVER TOO YOUNG (OR OLD) FOR THANK YOU NOTES
The same rule applies to thank-you notes. You’re never too young to “write” thank-you notes, starting with grandparents, then moving on to aunts, uncles, and cousins. You can dictate yours, if necessary, to a parent, or even better, an older sibling, and have that person do the handwriting. As the child grows older they take over them writing themselves.
Our only rule for thank you notes: You can’t use “thank you” in the first sentence. Starting with something else—“We enjoyed seeing you…” or “How fun to be back together in person this holiday season…”—helps make the note more challenging to write and more interesting to read.
PS: If your child doesn’t have thank-you cards—great gift idea!
6) THE BEST KIND OF GIVING IS GIVING BACK
If all these fail,remember, sometimes the emotions of big occasions become too big for all of us to handle. A little monstrosity can be forgiven; what you’re really trying to avoid is having your occasional monster become part of the permanent fraternity. You want to keep the out of Monsters, Inc.
You might enjoy reading these posts:
Or, you can contact me directly.