When I was little, one of my favorite gifts was a tea party set that probably cost my parents about $5 in 1976. It wasn’t because of the pretty plastic tea cups and the chance to pretend I was fancy. It was for the hope that I would get to sit down and have “tea” with my most favorite people, which meant I got to have their time, their eye contact, and their attention.
My kids are adults in their 20s. LONG gone are the days when I can just give the gift of a dinosaur fossil kit or a train set to work on together. Once my kids hit pre-teen status they wanted game systems and laptops and high dollar items. They wanted to open gifts and get back to their video games and snapchatting their friends. Thankfully, as adults they’ve seemed to come full circle and value family time, which is the best gift they could give their momma.
If your kids are still little, enjoy the $25 toy price range while it lasts. More and more the trend is to gift older kids with “experiences” like trips to see an NFL game of their favorite team, or to go to the American Girl store, or a trip to Disneyworld. We’ve done all those things, but now that our oldest son is a Navy officer deployed on his ship in Japan, it has given me a whole new perspective on gift giving and truly what “gifts” I am glad I have given my children over the years.
I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on my childhood lately and so I wanted to share a gentle reminder for those of you with young children. I promise that this is not an attempt at giving you a sermon on “good parenting”. I simply want to share my heart from the perspective of a mom that has seen her fair share of good times and hard times in parenting, and what I discovered really matters in the big picture after they grow up. So take it or leave it, I think especially in light of the hard year many of us have had in 2020, here are some reminders on the most important “gifts” to give your kids this Christmas, and by default, some gifts you will give yourself.
- LOVE YOURSELF – You will never be a perfect parent, but you will NEVER be the parent you truly want to be until you genuinely love yourself FIRST. Just stop right there. Some of you immediately bristled and thought of 3 things you dislike about yourself or you said in your head “who has time to do anything for ME???” You do. You have time, you just need to MAKE time. And it doesn’t need to take a lot of time. I’m not talking about just self care here, although it’s a good start. And you are VERY worthy of love. You aren’t going to do ALL the things you want to do to take care of yourself in a day every day so let’s just start with ONE thing and make it a priority. Pick ONE thing instead of being overwhelmed and doing nothing, and then one by one you can add more things. Drink more water, go to bed earlier or get up earlier, give your brain a “positive thought” bath, put that phone down and get outside, take a walk, do 5 minutes of meditation or prayer, spend an hour on meal prep once a week so you spend less time in the kitchen, hire a maid so you can spend time on a hobby. Whatever YOU need to do for YOU to refresh and recharge is so important and will give you more mental and emotional energy to LOVE your children more fully. You know what they say about putting your oxygen mask on first? It’s just true. More importantly, when you focus on truly feeling loved (this is going to involve your MIND and your SPIRIT in a much deeper way) you have a greater capacity to love others freely without obligation. Coming from someone who has looked to everyone else for love and affirmation her whole life, you will never get the love that you want from other people all the time. Even those that love you the most are going to let you down at some point. If you decide to LOVE and accept yourself first, regardless of your circumstances, you will feel more FREE to love others. How to do that when you aren’t feeling it? Start by reading Psalm 139 and know with confidence how much you are loved without obligation by your Creator, and then ask Him to SHOW you. He SO VERY MUCH wants to SHOW YOU that you are loved deeply and fully just the way you are. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+139&version=NIV
- GIVE YOUR KIDS YOUR EYES – “Mom, LOOK!” Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just pull your eyes out of your head so your kids would leave you alone and you could get stuff done?! Ha, Ha! Seriously, give the gift of being SEEN and be intentional to focus your eyes on theirs. There is scientific proof that eye contact impacts brain activity. How many times have you said to your kids “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Well…do I need to spell it out for you? We ALL want eye contact. We all NEED eye contact. I have witnessed parents in the car rider line, or at the store, or at a restaurant, or at the park focused on their phones or something else and their kid is trying to get their attention. I know it’s exhausting when they want to talk to you 20 million minutes a day, especially right now if you are schooling/working from home. So pick and choose. Here’s one idea: Instead of half way listening and saying “uh huh” 10 times and not really processing what they are talking about, tell them “I’m going to cook dinner and you can watch your show and then while we eat together I want to hear all about what you wanted to tell me about recess at school today. I want to give you my attention so I can really hear you. Would that be ok?” (maybe you can even get in some “me” time by listening to a podcast or watching a show you want to watch while you cook dinner.) Give them a chance to tell you whether it is REALLY “eye contact” important (scale of 1-5) and if it means stopping what you are doing to listen then do that. If it is “always” important then you can start to gauge when to actually give it your attention and talk to them about balancing your time. It’s GOOD to model for them that they aren’t always the most important person in your life and yet they ARE one of the most important people in your life. They won’t be scarred for life if you don’t listen to every single story at the drop of a hat, because they also need to learn that they are not the center of the universe. BUT you cannot multi-task through a relationship with your children. Skimping on the eye contact has the potential for your kids to grow up feeling “unseen” and dismissed, and when they are teens and adults, having more than an obligatory relationship with you will not be a priority. Don’t let it be too late.
- GIVE YOUR KIDS QUALITY TIME and “FRESH” TIME – I’m sure you know that your kids need quality time but what exactly defines “quality”? See above…eye contact and intentional attention. Throwing the ball, doing a craft, riding bikes, or family game night can all be good quality time activities that don’t have to take a lot of time. We’re all busy so it’s understandable that some days you have to make do with what you’ve got. Try to find a balance over a week’s time. I know a single mom who does her workout with her kids, even if she has to stop and start to help them. I used to give my kids jobs (aka a GAME 🙂 while grocery shopping and cooking…when they were old enough, of course (Can you go find the cereal in less than 2 minutes, can you wash the carrots as slow as a sloth, etc.) I’m still able to get things done, AND in the process I ask questions like “so if you could have any super power, what would it be?” and then just let them talk and be INTERESTED in what they are telling me. Repeat what they said back to them. (Are you kidding? She really said she liked your picture the best?!) That’s quality time, but be sure to also include some “fresh” time as well. Fresh time is that first few minutes when they wake up in the morning, or when they get home from school, or when they just finished a game/event. It is any time that they are most likely primed and ready to tell you stuff that is fresh on their mind, especially as they get older (maybe not so much when teens first wake up, just sayin’). The key is being aware and available when they are “fresh” and excited or emotional and ready to open up. Tell Grandma you’ll call her back. Pause the work project for 10 minutes. Turn off the TV. Turn away from your device. Tune in intentionally.
- GIVE YOUR KIDS YOUR EARS – I know this pretty much goes without saying and really goes along with the quality time examples already stated but this has been a hard year for a lot of people and as resilient as your kids are, they may need to just be heard more than ever. Do a daily check in and ask them how they feel about X,Y or Z that you know is going on. Paying attention and KNOWING what they are focused on (a boyfriend, the game coming up, a test, being excluded in their friend circle, etc) goes a long way. Don’t assume or tell them what they are feeling. Don’t tell them to “get over it” or “move on” or “I’m sure they didn’t mean it like that” or “you don’t need them anyway” or any number of pep talk responses that all of us parents say. Instead, just listen, and THEN after lots of listening see if they want advice, or encouragement, or maybe just a hug. Consider that they might just be in “survival mode” like the rest of us and will say “fine” when you ask how they’re doing, unless you dig a little deeper. No one wants to feel like you are prying the life out of them so pairing listening with quality time is a great way to get kids talking. This is especially true for boys in my opinion. Ask them to help you with a house project for a few minutes and do it together then get them talking while you work, so it’s not just you staring at them trying to pull info out of their brains. Instead of “how was school?” ask a specific question about a class or relationship or activity OR try one of these questions while you are eating dinner, doing an activity together, or taking a walk. https://www.parents.com/parenting/better-parenting/advice/questions-every-parent-should-ask-their-kid/ IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: If YOU the parent need to talk to someone, don’t allow your kids to become your counselor or best friend. One of the most damaging ways that kids develop in attachment is feeling “responsible” for your happiness or helpless to fix your problems. It’s normal to be real and don’t feel like you have to hide your feelings from your kids, especially if you have had a hard day and they see you crying or mad for example, but if you are struggling with depression on a daily basis, please talk to a friend or a professional. And definitely NEVER talk to your kids negatively about the other parent or important relationships except the facts they need to know because making them a “confidant” confuses their boundaries for future relationships. There is a lot I could talk about on this topic, but in order to focus on the kids, I’ll save it for another time.
- GIVE YOUR KIDS YOUR HEART – Yes, this goes without saying in what you give to your kids personally but I’m talking about show them compassion and empathy toward OTHERS. Let them see you listen to your sad neighbor in the driveway who just lost his job. Let them see you take a meal to a church friend who’s husband is in the hospital. You don’t need to take them with you for every sad event and definitely kids need to be sheltered from all the bad news but what they need most is to see that you are human and they need to LEARN empathy. There’s a balance. You of course want to shelter them with what is age appropriate and super heavy but demonstrating how to care for others is monumental in their emotional development and will make such a huge impact on their future success in the world. Don’t be afraid to show that you are HUMAN and talk in kid terms WHY you care about what is going on with your neighbor, or your friend, or on the news. It’s not just about showing emotion. It’s showing them how to SEE other humans as humans that matter.
Because of that tea set from my childhood, I have always felt it was important to be intentional to give my kids my time, my eye contact, and my attention. I think it has actually paid off for the most part because I am proud to have positive, accepting, and affirming relationships with all 3 of my adult kiddos. On most days they talk to me about what’s on their hearts, they call me to share good news, and they ask for my input on decisions, showing that they value my opinion. These are actually the most important “gifts” they could give ME. They don’t seem to be concerned that they only got to go to Disney a few times, didn’t always get the latest gadget, and got boring clothes as gifts sometimes. I have even had to apologize for doing some stupid parenting things…and they have forgiven me.
Kids need YOU more than they need a bunch of presents. I know you probably feel like 2020 has ROBBED you of all your parenting mojo and you are running on empty, but it is worth the extra effort, so KEEP TRYING! One of the most important things that both my sons said they learned from me was that “you are not responsible for my happiness”. They learned this from me when they were closer to adulthood in recent years (as I have worked through some childhood wounds) but we have had some GREAT conversations about it and in their own words it has helped them feel much more equipped to deal with anxiety, stress, and tough challenges in their own life. They have learned to take responsibility for their own happiness which makes me feel like maybe I didn’t do too bad a job when they were younger and didn’t know all the things that I know now. I think the most important thing they have learned is that I never give up on myself because I never give up on THEM.
One thing I am learning more and more every day is that I can only change what I can control and it won’t happen overnight. Change takes time so if you need to work on any of these “gifts” I’ve suggested, give yourself some grace, talk to your kids about how you want to do better in one area, and ask for their forgiveness in the ways that you may have fallen short. It’s never too late to improve your relationship with anyone. Don’t try to transform everything all at once. That’s impossible. Remember, God loves you just the WAY YOU ARE and He most likely gave you your weaknesses for a purpose. For example, I’ve been working on impulsive frustration and anger for years and it wasn’t until this year that I realized that I can’t pray for God to take it away because He has given me anger to use for GOOD against injustice in the world, so what I pray for now is that He would help me channel it in positive and affective ways, so it doesn’t come out in hurtful ways. This shift in mindset has truly made such a huge impact on my life in just the last 6 months.
One final thought…I can’t emphasize enough this truth: You were created ON purpose FOR a purpose and the greatest gift you could ever RECEIVE is God’s gift of love and grace. You may not know Him or think you need Him, and you may feel right now that He has stacked a lot of things against you this year, but I can assure you He sees you, He hears you, and He will never stop trying to reach you and rescue you with His love. And just because you are a parent doesn’t mean that you ever outgrow needing to be someone’s child so my hope is that you will KNOW without a shadow of a doubt that no matter how you were parented, you get to be HIS child EVERY day. Your kids NEED you to be the parent that they need, and you WILL be able to BE who they need only with God’s help. Let Him pour His love into you right now, in this minute. He is ready and waiting for you to RECEIVE.
What are you being challenged to work on and what gifts will you give your kids more intentionally this year? I’m working on some stuff too. We’re in this together. I would love for you to share your thoughts in the comments and cheer you on! MERRY CHRISTMAS and may you know the TRUE Spirit of Christmas for yourself in the gift of our Savior Jesus.