Hey Barbara -- I'm dreading Christmas morning.
In the past, Christmas morning has been everything our kids imagined and then some. We realize now that we overdid it, but, hey, my husband and I enjoyed every minute, including the planning, buying, and wrapping. But, sigh, our reality is different this year (I'll spare you the details, but we aren't giving each other any gifts and we won't have champagne for Christmas breakfast. There will be a tree, but it will be modest, unlike previous years when it reached almost to the top of our cathedral-ceilinged family room.)
So yes, we are seriously scaling back and my question is: how to deal with what I expect will be disappointed children on Christmas morning? They are 8 and 11.
From: NoHoHoHere, Portland, ME
You're not alone, of course. My colleague, Joe Kahn, had a story in the paper just the other day about this.
The good news is there are concrete things you can do:
1. Don't underestimate your kids. As ego-centric as all kids are, they aren't oblivious and unless you have created a literal bubble around them, they know that your family is going through some changes. It's best to acknowledge these changes as they happen, matter-of-factly, without drama. Don't wait for them to wake up on Christmas morning to discover things are different this year. Give them some advance notice, like, uh, today. Start by acknowledging what they already know: "You've probably noticed our family has gone through some changes recently." List one or two obvious ones.
2. Give them clear expectations in a gentle, calm way. The tree is a good starting point: "This year our tree is smaller than it used to be. That's because big trees cost a lot of money and this year, we're trying to have a wonderful Christmas without spending a lot of money." Plug in a reason: "Dad/Mom has a new job and he doesn't make as much as he used to; Dad/Mom is still looking for a job." It's important to give a reason, even with 4- and 5-year-olds; otherwise kids of all ages will apply their own, magically-thought-up reasons: "I was bad, that's why. It's my fault." Keep it simple and age-appropriate. If they ask questions, answer them as best you can.
3. Include Santa in the predicament: "We're not the only people trying to spend money carefully. Even Santa is trying to save money this year. There won't be as many presents from him." Be specific! Kids think concretely: "You might only get X presents. You probably won't get Y." I would do this even with children as young as 4 or 5. There are plenty of other children in other families who are hearing a similar story, and yes, kids do talk about this with each other.
4. Acknowledge your own feelings. It's OK to say, "I will miss the big tree / our Christmas brunch," whatever. And it's OK to say, "Maybe another year we will have a big tree again." But don't raise unrealistic hopes and don't wallow. If it makes you tearful, cry where they don't see you. The best gift you can give them is to be honest but upbeat, and to model that you can still have a wonderful Christmas in the face of adversity, whatever it is.
5. On Christmas morning, if they are unhappy, don't call them greedy, spoiled, or bratty. Give them their wishes in fantasy: "You wish you got X, don't you? You wish we could do Y, don't you? I wish that, too. But this year is different, and I think it's still wonderful. I hope you do, too." Keep it simple, help them to move past it. But remember that validating the sense of loss will help a child of any age get over it a whole lot more quickly than punishing or shaming him. Tell stories about past years: "Remember when...!!" Pull out photos.
Readers, I'm anxious to see what suggestions you have, too.
I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.
The author is solely responsible for the content.