Relationships or things?
Which one are you focusing upon this holiday season?
To be honest, my family’s first Christmas 22 years ago was over-stimulating. An emotional roller coaster – all too common with adoption.
My six children unwrapped one gift after another – many from people they hardly knew.
The following morning the drama began. Fighting over each other’s toys. Arguing with me for no reason. Seeking control rather than enjoying the moment.
Not what I expected.
In their traumatized minds, the holidays remained a trigger to their unfortunate past. Nothing in life seemed fair. Rather than being kids and celebrating, several of my children sabotaged the moment.
Let’s all be miserable together.
A week later those “things” meant little to nothing. I even found several gifts in the large trash can in the garage. Discarded.
They had no purpose. No connection. No worth.
For my three oldest children, the first holiday with a new family meant more of the same. Disappointment.
All they knew from their years in foster care was strangers giving gifts anonymously. To needy kids at Christmas time. “Eight-year-old male. Nine-year-old female.” Nameless. Faceless.
Often not thinking twice about the impact of their “feel good” gesture.
I remember several conversations from that first Christmas very well.
Would you take me for a walk along the downtown canal at night? I’ve always wanted to see the tall buildings lit up.
Why can’t someone take me fishing? I went once with my Grandpa.
I’d really like ice skating lessons but my foster mom said no every time.
No doubt, I learned a valuable lesson from my children. Relationships matter more than things.
From that holiday forward, I spread the cheer more evenly throughout the entire month of December.
First, a large family gift to use together. Yes, together. The used Nintendo 64 with four controllers and a handful of “E” games was the best present ever. Donkey Kong motivated five brothers to help each other – and then receive additional play time.
Several smaller individual ones followed – carefully selected, not necessarily expensive. Never wrapped but pulled from Santa’s bag.
At the same time, we created family rituals. Simple activities that brought us closer. And with a de-emphasis on material gain, one gift flourished on its own.
A sense of family.
More joy for my children. Less frustration for me.
That fundamental shift continues to work wonders at my home for one simple reason. Lots of “stuff” is never enough for kids from hard places. It often does the opposite of intended – with no meaningful connection.
Last weekend I asked my children about their favorite holiday memories. Interestingly, no one mentioned a gift. Instead, each talked about our time together as a family.
Feeling safe. Feeling valued. Feeling content.
Most importantly, feeling loved.
Perhaps this is the year to update traditions. To create new family rituals. Here our list to stimulate your thinking. But remember that each family is unique.
On the first day of connection, pull out the handmade school ornaments from years gone by. Every last one. Let the memories flow. Then decorate, no tree necessary. You’ll be reinforcing an insightful and personal family timeline that honors the past.
Make a holiday music playlist to satisfy everyone’s taste – from serious to playful with a variety of genres. It’s also a great way to embrace racial, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity. Alvin and Chipmunks from my childhood was suddenly new at our home today.
Light an evening candle at dinner in the dark. Take turns night after night. Add more candles and watch the illumination grow. Maybe discuss the symbolism of lights to Hanukkah and Kwanza – or establish meanings of your own and record them. There’s something powerful about candles & kids with trauma.
Create a month-long holiday menu that includes the family favorites. Then organize plans to help each other make them. No doubt, kitchen time is bonding time. I’ll never forget my son and I peeling apples for two hours. He’d never enjoyed a homemade pie. And don’t forget hot chocolate prepared the old-fashioned way.
Make snowballs from old newspapers and let the fun begin. For an added twist, apply double-stick tape and take aim. No gold rings necessary.
Watch a holiday movie – or find one on DVD at the public library. At my house each December, The Trouble with Angels with Hayley Mills is a family favorite. Several of my sons know many of the lines. They laugh non-stop. And I‘m talking about a deep belly laugh that’s infectious – and highly therapeutic. The Kid Who Loved Christmas is excellent too.
Sit by a fireplace or fire pit and enjoy the warmth. It’s a perfect opportunity for an even warmer conversation between parent and child. Seize the moment. Ignite the spark.
Collect a variety of holiday stories. Books of all levels are available at the public library. Now take turns reading them – especially for children needing a confidence booster. One chapter from Little House in the Big Woods was a favorite with my kids for several years. Simple pleasures came alive. You can also write your own. The adventuresome may even act the parts. Time for your very own Christmas pageant to begin.
Find scenic locations in your community and take silly family selfies. Create a collage of your favorites. Post on social media for family and friends to see. As always, humor is good medicine.
Work together on a service project that reflects your family’s values. Visit a retirement village and play board games. Help an elderly neighbor or church member. Bake cookies for family friends and deliver them. The possibilities are endless without anyone feeling uncomfortable.
One year when all my kids played violin, they finally mastered “Little Drummer Boy.” We then played our three-song repertoire at our principal’s, pediatrician’s and therapist’s offices. What a late afternoon of accomplishment! Many tears of joy.
Write letters of appreciation to teachers or other professionals. They’ll appreciate the sincerity much more than another bottle of bubble bath. And you might be surprised by the words your kids share. Building empathetic hearts at the same time.
Prepare gift “coupons”. How can each family member give from within and offer something special to another? To this day my kids are more generous with their time and talents than I ever expected. One Christmas my oldest son spent hours helping his younger brother master a video game for the first time – not simply the 30 minutes on the coupon.
Most importantly, be mindful. The goal is connection. By giving from the heart and not the pocketbook, you will create memories that last a lifetime.
Relationships, not things, this holiday season.
Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE
To follow Craig’s journey in raising his six children with special needs, click here: Adopting Faith: A Father’s Unconditional Love
To follow my son Andrew’s inspiring story, “Like” his special Facebook page Andrew Peterson Athlete & Advocate
To watch Andrew’s amazing ESPN 14-minute documentary, click here. Andrew Peterson ESPN “Respect” Documentary