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by Allan Shedlin

(Variation originally distributed worldwide by The New York Times/Hearst News Service, 11/22/06)


This is the time of year when I wish my ad-laden newspaper came with a hand truck so my back won’t go out as I haul it inside. With Halloween, Election Day, and Veterans’ Day behind us, the intense commercial hype of Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa has begun.


As retailers jockey for advantage, the flurry of gift buying advertisements builds to a blizzard earlier and earlier and comes at us from every conceivable (and inconceivable) angle – cold consumerism fills our television and computer screens as well as our mailboxes. With the retail giants now displaying Christmas items in early September and mail-order catalogs being delivered as early as Labor Day, the days without holiday hype seem to be outnumbered by those with it.


This commercial blitz makes it harder to think about the unique opportunities the holidays provide for deeper meaning. I’ve spent years asking scores of people to tell me what they remember about their childhood holiday celebrations – not a single person began with a memory of a specific gift they received. Instead, they spoke about traditions, tastes, smells, sights, places, visitors, and, most of all, about feelings. Their responses reminded me of a saying I read on a refrigerator magnet a few years back: “the most important things in life are not things.”


So, a few years back I established a new tradition of giving holiday presence, rather than presents.


Winter holiday celebrations are times of unique anticipation and intensity – veritable Kodak moments of the heart and soul. They account for an inordinate number of deposits in our memory banks at the same time as they are hyped by retailers in direct proportion to the contribution they make to end-of-year profits. The advertising pitches demand that we find just the right presents (and there are now Web sites that will do it for us!) – especially for the children on our lists. But as we consider our own holiday memory banks, the yield is more of presence than presents; and there is little doubt that the dividends are much greater.


The importance of presence does not surprise me when I think about the abundant research that documents the benefits to the child AND the parent of positive parent-child engagement. This has been supported in the research I’ve been conducting with children, young adults, parents, and grandparents during the past two decades. During hundreds of hours in 28 focus groups in three countries, I asked children and young adults what qualities they would include if they could create the most excellent parent they could imagine. Not surprisingly, the quality they most desired was that their parent(s) be there for them; really be there. In my subsequent interviews with parents and grandparents from more than 20 countries, I asked what qualities they thought the kids most desired. It was not surprising that the adults “guessed” correctly, and added that this was the same quality they most wanted to cultivate because they remembered that this was what they had most wanted from their parents.


We should not underestimate how challenging it is during a period of hurtling, automatic pilot-parenting to make time for presence – that’s one reason that presence is so valuable and valued. Nor should we underestimate the difficulties inherent in making the switch from presents to presence in a culture in which consumerism is often out of control; individual and family debt is more common than ever; and parents often make up for their lack of presence by buying presents – especially during a season known for its excesses and hysteria. Here are some ways parents and grandparents can begin to emphasize presence over presents with children and each other:


  • Have a family discussion about holiday traditions and introduce the idea of establishing this new one – include your rationale and encourage discussion.

  • Ease into this new tradition: perhaps beginning this year by matching each present with a presence.

  • Ask each family member how each would like to define and spend the gift of presence: reading a good book, having a regular meal(s) together, going for a    walk, playing a board/card/video game together, regular reading of a bedtime story, etc. If possible, build the presence into a routine, so it doesn’t feel contrived.

  • Be creative: give “presence coupons,” create a “Presence-of-the-month” gift.

  • Begin with small steps and amounts of time (be aware that a teenagers’ worst nightmare might be spending a whole day with a parent); remember that it may be best to keep the time spent together brief so more is wanted, rather than when you are both feeling like, “Will this ever end?!”

  • Think back about what you most enjoyed – or wished for – regarding parent presence when you were a kid.

  • Make the off button on your TV remote, mobile phone, and other electronic distractors your ally, if not your dearest holiday friend. 

  • Consider expanding the holiday presence list outside your family.


As we think about gift giving throughout the year, we might do well to think of the popular charge-card pitch line: "There are some things money can’t buy.” Then, to our credit, our gift-giving occasions can overflow with an abundance of presence – priceless!

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