The holiday season has arrived in full force, and already promotions for toys, games and other products are enticing our children to ask for more and more. My family has already seen countless commercials for Black Friday deals, and we even got a full holiday catalog from Amazon in our mailbox before the end of October.
In our home, that Amazon catalog is a useful tool to help my children, ages 10 and 7, get a sense of what they might want for Hanukkah. We tend to limit gifts for our kids throughout the year in favor of making the holiday a special one for them.
My more judicious elder child carefully analyzes each page and marks off a handful of items, while my younger one might as well draw a giant circle on the cover to indicate he wants every product listed within the thick booklet.
Regardless of how many things each of my children desire, I want them to understand our family has a budget, and that, like anything else we choose to invest in, we need to be mindful about our spending and think about what is best for all of us. Like many families, we have a number of required expenses that need to come before spending in other areas, including Hanukkah gifts.
Early on, my husband and I tried to instill in our children mindfulness around material possessions. This has meant enduring many tantrums over our refusal to buy them some random toy we knew they would just toss out the next day. During Hanukkah time, we take our kids’ interests into account and give them gifts within our budget. This means we don’t get them everything they want. For the most part, our kids don’t complain about the amount of gifts they get, as we also try to instill in them a sense of gratitude.
Of course, our kids weren’t born knowing about things like budgets and spending, and as they grow up, helping them understand these concepts is very important in our family. At around age 5 or 6, I believe kids can understand gifts don’t just materialize out of nowhere. They cost money and that money comes from their parents or anyone else who purchases something for them. People work hard to earn the money used to buy them gifts, and this is something to be appreciated and not taken for granted.
The elementary years are also when children start learning about currency, and monetary literacy becomes an important part of their math education. At home, many kids this age receive an allowance and can begin thinking about how to use their own money. My kids will ask me to buy them something, to which I will often reply by telling them to use their own money. It is amazing how disinterested in something they become when their own cash is on the line.
Though we do our best to help our kids understand the value of spending wisely and being grateful for the gifts they receive, we are up against enormous societal pressure to get our children as many gifts as possible. Many of us have kids whose classmates and friends celebrate Christmas and are showered with gifts, putting even more pressure on Jewish parents to help our kids “fit in.” Being left out of the Christmas “magic” is eased a bit when you can share how many toys you got for Hanukkah.
There is no denying the massive influence of Christmas culture on Jewish kids and their families. However, I learned long ago to avoid competing with Christmas and instead make the focus of Hanukkah family togetherness, Jewish pride and passing on the traditions of lighting the menorah, eating latkes and playing dreidel.
But we still do gifts. My honesty about our family gift budget is never intended to make my kids worry or feel bad about our family finances. In discussing our Hanukkah plans, I focus on the wonderful things we get to do for the holiday and making the time truly special. My husband and I don’t get into specifics about how much money we have budgeted for gifts, and we guide our kids toward focusing on the few items they really want instead of just asking for everything.
This year, for example, in lieu of more physical gifts, we are hoping to give our kids a special day out in New York City. We discussed this idea with them and explained this would mean getting fewer or less elaborate gifts for the remainder of the holiday. They also agreed that they are becoming less interested in playing with toys and would prefer doing fun things as a family. In the future, I could see us forgoing physical gifts all together, or just giving our kids a small amount of cash each night.
While some may feel honesty about who buys the gifts may take away from the joy of the holiday, I do not envy my Christmas celebrating friends whose kids believe Santa is responsible for their presents. Instead of stressing over how to give our kids everything they want, and having to explain why a mythical being couldn’t get them their dream gift, I can just be upfront with my kids about what we can and can’t afford. I also talk to them about the importance of giving back to others, and part of our family budget goes toward monetary and physical donations to local and national causes we support.
By encouraging mindfulness in their gift choices, and consideration of others who may not be as fortunate, I hope my kids learn that Hanukkah is more than a holiday for getting presents. It is a time for being with family, honoring tradition and celebrating Jewish pride.