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The Gift of Time, the Joy of Giving

Toys Are Cool, But Fostering Values Makes For A Truly Special Season


My sister-in-law likes to surprise us with wacky gifts. Once it was a live goldfish; another time it was a time capsule. The time capsule was innovative and thought-provoking—a perfect gift to capture the spirit of the holidays.

On Christmas Night we gathered to reflect on what was important to our family and to record our wishes and predictions for the future. Then we buried the list in the time capsule—a plastic container—for our kids to dig up twenty years hence. The time spent with family and an activity that allowed us to reflect made the celebration memorable and meaningful.

We live in an age when manufacturers spend billions to convince our kids that an Xbox, a Bratz doll, or a Robosapien will make them happy. The commercialization of the holidays, which now begins in September, can dampen the true holiday spirit. But what I find heartening—make that amazing—is the number of parents who manage to convey their values to their children beneath the din of holiday hype.

Two years ago, Sue Gercich, of Walnut Creek, gave her sons, Skyler, age 10, and Devin, age 6, a GameCube. But she noticed that the joy of getting what they’d asked for didn’t last long. Once the boys got used to the games, they wanted a PlayStation 2 and an Xbox.

“I could see the thrill had been in hoping for the gift,” Sue says. “I explained that I didn’t want them to think happiness is about getting things. I told them next year we’d be focusing on doing things together, not huge presents.”

True to her word, Sue scaled back the following holiday. Skyler had wanted more games, but he was delighted by a coupon Sue made that entitled him to go out with her and do anything he wanted, a real gift for both mother and son.

The gift of time is perhaps the most precious, but that doesn’t mean gifts wrapped in boxes can’t be good, too. For example, I still remember unwrapping a box that held a white cotton sweater that my eight-year-old picked out, paid for, and gave to me years ago. I still have it in my closet, even though I can’t wear it. And certainly, it is also important to teach our children about the joy of giving rather than receiving, and what better time for that lesson than during the holidays?
Still, I agree with Joyce Caldeira, a licensed educational psychologist working with children and families at Touchstone Counseling in Pleasant Hill, who encourages parents to think creatively when it comes to presents.

“We don’t need to feel guilty about giving to our kids,” Caldeira says. “But we need to understand that buying them stuff doesn’t build character. Getting everything they want develops apathy. It’s great when parents can think outside the box.”

Parents who develop traditions that promote values like generosity and caring don’t have to worry about apathy, even in our relatively affluent community. Sixteen-year-old Katie Leonard, her older sister Jenny, and their father have been entertaining their Walnut Creek neighborhood for years: The three of them play carols on their trombones.

Then there are Walnut Creek’s Ory sisters, Kara, nine, and Mia, 11, who invite friends for a special get-together where they make angel pins and other presents to take to a convalescent hospital.

Another young person who’s learning about generosity and caring is 12-year-old Mallory Brown of Lafayette, who goes to San Francisco with her parents and offers beautifully wrapped date-nut bread and cookies to the homeless.

Not surprisingly, when we concentrate on the values we want our children to learn, our own spirits are nourished.

Caryl Morton and her husband, Michael Marks, emphasize the wonder of the holidays by celebrating the winter solstice and the beginning of longer days. On December 21, they throw a party, placing candles all around their darkened Walnut Creek house. “As we light them, we talk about the beauty of light coming into our lives,” Caryl says. They celebrate Christmas Eve by going to hear the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir at Slim’s in San Francisco. “I want my kids to see people with all different beliefs singing together. When we start clapping to that gospel music, they feel how contagious joy can be.”

Each night of Hanukkah, Danville’s Sara and Chris Truebridge talk with their 11-year-old son, Ian, about a different value. Ian reaches into a box and pulls out a piece of paper that might read “the arts” or “nature,” and that determines which gift he gets and the discussion for that evening. “When Ian lights the Hanukkah candle and says the ancient prayer, that links us with the past,” says Sara. “Exploring topics that take us in so many directions leads us into the future. We can imagine Ian embracing these things as he goes into the world.”

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