The holiday season can be truly magical, for both kids and adults. Some of my best memories as a child are of celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family and I hope my own children look back on our family holidays just as fondly one day.
During this time of excitement, it's so easy for kids to focus on just the presents. Can you really blame them when every commercial is for a Black Friday sale and every store is filled with beautiful displays of toys?
Try these simple phrases to help your children focus on all of the meaningful holiday experiences, rather than just the toys:
1. "When I was a kid..."
Take some time this year to reminisce about your own childhood holidays and traditions. Talk about the things your family did together and which memories are most meaningful to you. Children hear about Santa and presents everywhere they turn, but we can help balance it out by talking about the other wonderful parts of the season.
Plus, young children love hearing stories from their parents' childhoods. They generally find it fascinating, like you're letting them into a secret world they rarely hear about.
2. "Help me unpack the decorations."
Get your child involved in the preparations for the holiday. While these tasks can sometimes seem like just another item on your to-do list, they are often really enjoyable for young children. Whether it's decorating the house, planning the holiday menu, or deciding which holiday events to go to this year, invite your child to help, even if it makes the task take a little bit longer.
3."What could we do for your cousins to make their holiday wonderful?"
Ask your child to help you brainstorm something nice you could do for someone, rather than a gift to buy. It might be cleaning a sibling's room for them or baking muffins together for your child's teacher. What matters is that your child is focusing on things to do for someone else, giving the gift of time rather than money.
4. "Let's make some holiday cards together."
Set out some simple supplies like markers and stickers and invite your child to help you make holiday cards. You can send them out with your family photo cards, or simply keep them with you and hand them out to anyone you see who looks like they may need a little boost this season.
The important thing is that your child is seeing that handmade gifts have value and that there are simple things we can do to make this time meaningful and special.
5. "Let's go on a holiday scavenger hunt."
Preschool-aged children love scavenger hunts, and they're so easy to pull off. Simply make a list of things like a snowman, an elf, a wreath and take a walk or a drive with your child to find all of the items. If it's a hit, you can make a new list each week.
Sometimes giving kids a purpose, like finding certain items around town, can help them focus on an experience like taking in the holiday sights.
6. "Let's make a holiday bucket list."
Sit down with your child the day after Thanksgiving and make a list together of all of the experiences you want to share this holiday season. You can keep it simple and just put the list on the refrigerator and tick things off when you have a free day, or write each item on a paper and draw randomly from a jar each day. It can be easy things like baking cookies for a neighbor, drinking hot cocoa or reading a holiday book together.
7. "We're going to help serve a holiday lunch today."
Volunteering is a great way to not only help others in need, but show your child that the season of giving is not really about giving presents.
Choose an activity your child can really participate in like making decorations for a local children's hospital or visiting an elderly home to bring some holiday cheer. During the activity, talk with your child about the importance of being there for others and the real spirit of the holiday season.
8. "What experiences would you like as Christmas gifts this year?"
Once your child is preschool age, they are old enough to begin thinking of meaningful experiences they might like to receive. They might need some prompting, but they can participate in the discussion. Experience gifts like a membership to a children's museum or tickets to see the Nutcracker make wonderful gifts and take the focus off of material things.
9. "Do you want to play a fun game with me?"
There are so many things that make the holidays special. The lights, the music, and of course the smells! Use empty spice jars and place a different holiday scented item in each jar. You might include cinnamon, fresh pine needles, nutmeg, a scoop of hot cocoa mix, or peppermint.
You can either blindfold your child or wrap the spice jars in wrapping paper and then let them smell and guess what each item is. Simple activities like this help your child pause and recognize all of the little things that make the season magical.
10. "Let's look at holiday photos together."
Take some time to look at old holiday photos together. Make the experience as cozy as possible by lighting a candle or a fire in the fireplace to make it feel special. Put on some holiday music and make an evening of it.
You can make these simple holiday experiences every bit as special as a big trip to a holiday light festival or opening piles of presents. Children follow our lead with which parts of the holiday are the most important. If we make a big deal out of choosing and decorating a tree together, they will internalize that that's an important tradition in our family. But if we go all-in on singing holiday songs together every day in December, that is what they will remember.
Every child loves presents, and there's nothing wrong with that, but we can subtly shift the focus so that their memories will be of simpler (and less expensive!) moments. They may not remember what exactly they received two months later, but they will certainly remember that you watch Elf together every Christmas Eve in your matching PJs.