No matter how hard we try, it's seems impossible to avoid getting caught up in the gift giving frenzy created this time of year. It doesn't matter if we observe Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or don't participate in any organized celebrations at all. There's no denying that the incessant messages compelling us to buy, buy, buy are effective.
We may talk a good game about being horrified by the ridiculous consumerism that starts getting hyped before Halloween, but it's also hard to avoid thinking about how nice it would be to give our children that one really special gift; the one that would show them just how much they mean to us; just how much we love them.
Stores wouldn't open on Thanksgiving Thursday to give shoppers a head start on Black Friday super sales; unless so many of us were willing to skip out on our family and friends to wait in line with strangers, just to get our son that discounted Xbox or our daughter the IPad at an a affordable price?
The real question parents should be asking themselves is, "Just what is the perfect gift?"
What's the one thing every child wants and needs?
You'll never find it in a store or online.
It involves a sizable investment of a very valuable and limited resource, but doesn't cost a penny.
Answer: Spending quality time with them!
I could site numerous rigorous academic studies conducted by experts demonstrating the positive outcomes of quality family time, but in this case I think hearing from the children themselves is much more powerful.
One morning, I was teaching a class of delinquent youth who had just been released from long-term placement in detention centers. During the discussion period, a young man said, "I think one of the reasons I keep doing dumb things is to get attention from my mother." She never cares where I am or who I'm with. And when we are together, we don't do anything. It's like I don't count at all."
Sadly, many of these young people come from highly dysfunctional families, and their parents are so self-absorbed because they're battling complex issues of their own - ranging from drug addiction to incarceration.
I left the class feeling pretty helpless, but looking forward to spending the afternoon with a group of sixth graders at a traditional middle school.
Once again, the discussion involved parent-child relationships. To my surprise, these young people, who came from typical households, said the same thing as the troubled students, "My parents never spend enough time with me. They're always too busy doing something else. It's like I don't count."
The difference was these parents were trying to do their very best for the families – earning a living, in some cases working two jobs; shopping for and preparing meals; washing clothes. We all know about that never ending list of parental chores and responsibilities.
There may be different reasons, but sadly the results are the same. The one thing students in both classes had in common was their wish to spend quality time with their parents.
I know concerned and loving moms and dads already have too much on their plates. They often have to schedule "date nights" just to talk to each other. And forget about grabbing a few minutes of very important "alone" time to "reboot" and keep up the hectic pace.
But the hard truth is, as parents our most important responsibility is making sure our children have what they need to grow strong and healthy. That means our time and attention. There are no substitutes for that. Most important, spending time with your children shouldn't become another chore added to your already long to-do lists. It should be a family oasis. A time when everyone gets a chance to have fun, gets to know each other better, and build relationships that will guide and sustain them for the rest of their lives.
Need some help deciding just what to do during family time? No problem at all. It can be as simple as having dinner together with everyone sitting around the same table at the same time simply eating and talking. No television, no texting, no side conversation – just sharing and listening to each other.
Looking for something different? There are as many options as there are families. Can't all agree on what to do? Take turns being responsible for finding an activity. It's a terrific way for people to try new things they would never think to attempt on their own. In my case it was sculling lessons!!!
Still need some help? The following is just a small sample of all the resources to pick from:
Relationships Foundation: Inspiration for family time activites
Inspired by Familia: 35 Family date night ideas
American Grandparents Association: 10 cheap family dates
Zen Habits: 100 Ways to have fun with your kids for free or cheap
Parents magazine: Family activities
If you're still not sure quality time is the best gift that you can give your children; perhaps one more story will finally convince you. David, a teen dad, came into parenting class one night right before Christmas and announced he had been doubtful about the "time thing" we had discussed the previous week. That was until he was looking at a toy catalogue with his four-year-old daughter and asked her to pick out what she wanted most. Without a second thought she answered, "More time with you Daddy – just like this!"
So do yourself and your family a big favor. Forget about that one last trip to the store in search of the perfect gift. Instead, spend the time with your children.
Have a question for the Healthy Kids panel? Ask it here.
Read more from the Healthy Kids blog »