Give Them Presence for the Holidays...and Then Some
By Allan Shedlin
Founder, DADvocacy Consulting Group
A version of this post was originally published and distributed worldwide by The New York Times/Hearst News Service, November 22, 2006.
This is the time of year when I wish my ad-laden newspaper and daily junk mail came with a hand truck so my back won’t go out as I haul it inside. And when I wish the deluge of uninvited social media invaders and broadcast hawkers would cease and desist. Halloween, Election Day, Veterans’ Day, and Thanksgiving are now behind us, and Chanukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa, impatiently awaiting their turns, are ready to intensify the materialistic hype. How I long for it to ebb.
As retailers jockey for advantage and social media goes into overdrive, the flurry of gift-buying advertisements and websites builds to a blizzard earlier and earlier and comes at us from every conceivable (and inconceivable) angle – cold consumerism fills our television screens, and all the other screens new technology afflicts. With the retail giants now displaying Christmas decorations and other items in early September, and mail-order and internet catalogs pushed on us as early as Labor Day, the days without holiday frenzy seem to be outnumbered by those with it. (Thankfully, some "big box" retailers finally decided to close on Thanksgiving Day, enabling their overworked and underpaid employees to enjoy the holiday with their families.)
This annual 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 media sales pitches demand we find just the right presents, 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 involvement. This has been supported in the research I’ve been conducting with children, young adults, parents, and grandparents during the past two and a half decades. During hundreds of interview 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. Many more of us learned that during the pandemic lockdowns as we tailored different approaches to being present. 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/videogame 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 teenager’s 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 “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 that one credit card company’s tagline: “There are some things money can’t buy.” Then, to our credit, these gift-giving occasions could overflow with an abundance of presence.
Now that would be priceless!
Happy Holiday Season to You and Your Family!
Reading with your kids/grandkids is a great way to give holiday presence this year, so don't forget to enter our Books To Read With Your Kids Giveaway before you go!
Allan Shedlin has devoted his life’s work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, and five grandchildren, as well as numerous "bonus" sons/daughters and grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, school leadership, parenting coaching, policy development, and advising at the local, state, and national levels. After eight years as an elementary school principal, Allan founded and headed the National Elementary School Center for 10 years. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications, as well as appearing on radio and TV. In 2008, he was honored as a "Living Treasure" by Mothering Magazine and founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, where he now serves as president emeritus. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In 2018, he launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019 he co-created and began co-facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy Up! and Mommy Up! programs. He earned his elementary and high school diplomas from NYC’s Ethical Culture Schools, BA at Colgate University, MA at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an ABD at Fordham University. But he considers his D-A-D the most important “degree” of all.