Over the past several weeks, my inbox and newsfeed have been filled with various reminders that we are approaching a once-in-70,000-years event: the overlap of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, endearingly named Thanksgivukkah. While I am very much looking forward to cranberry-sauce-stuffed latkes and turkey menorahs, I am having misgivings about another far less public overlap that will be happening in my home this year; that of Hanukkah and my son’s birthday.
I am excited to celebrate both of these happy occasions, but am a little nervous about what will happen with gift-giving squared. Don’t get me wrong; I relish seeing the happiness in my children’s faces when they rip open wrapping paper to find the items that have been topping their wish-list. Yet, I also find that there is an inverse relationship (and I thought I would never again use high-school math) between the number of gifts they receive and their level of appreciation.
I am sure that I cannot be the only mother (at least I hope I am not the only one) who has had a child open a gift in front of the giver and blurt out a particularly inappropriate remark. Something along the lines of, “Is that all?” or, “That’s not the one I wanted,” or, “But my brother’s present is better,” or a similar comment that makes you want to invent a machine that would filter your children’s thoughts somewhere between their brains and their mouths.
I find these tendencies to be elevated during birthdays and holidays when they receive multiple gifts at a time. I fully realize this is the epitome of a “first-world problem” and I am deeply, deeply grateful that my husband and I, our family, and our friends are in a position to buy new things for my children, and to delight them with presents. But I am challenged by how to instill this same sense of gratitude in my children. How do I get them to understand just how fortunate they are to be receiving gifts?
In the Jewish text “Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers)” we learn a teaching by the sage Ben Zoma: “Who is rich? One who is satisfied with their portion.” I find myself thinking of this often and I truly believe that, in more vernacular terms, “being happy with what you have” is one of the cornerstones of living a fulfilling life. But how do we teach our children to achieve this lofty ideal, when it is difficult for so many of us as adults?
My oldest in particular–the one who is about to experience a Birthdaykah–can seem pre-programmed to focus on the things he doesn’t have: the place we didn’t go to on vacation, the toy he didn’t use his giftcard for, or the after-school activity in which he is not enrolled. I worry about this part of his personality and what it means for his future contentment.
My husband and I try to do various things throughout the year to help my children realize how blessed they are. They regularly donate toys and books that they have outgrown, and we always ask them to select at least one gift that they have received to give to a child that would not otherwise have a gift (i.e. dropping it off at a local social service agency). But I wonder if that is enough, and if the message is really getting through.
So this year, when we sit down to a dessert of pumpkin pie and birthday cake, I will be making my own wishes over my son’s candles. One, that in the year ahead I find a way to hold in balance the tension of wanting my children to experience the joy of new experiences and things, with the need to teach them genuine gratitude and appreciation. And two, that as my sons continue to mature they will be able to internalize the ancient wisdom of Ben Zoma, which still contains so much truth in today’s modern world.