Get their focus off their wish lists and back on Christ
Before my eldest was born, my husband and I decided we weren’t going to “do” Santa Claus with our kids. Intoxicated by that special blend of smug naïveté unique to first-time parents, we assumed that by banning the jolly fat guy in the red suit from our holiday traditions, we would protect our children from getting swept up in materialism and keep them focused on the true meaning of Christmas — the birth of Jesus Christ.
Twelve years and a couple of kids later, we’ve learned that whether the packages under the tree on Christmas morning are signed by a magical old dude or boring old Mom and Dad, it doesn’t escape kids’ notice that a typical Christmas morning comes with a whole lot of … well, stuff. Even without Santa in the picture, my kids are just as gift-obsessed as everyone else’s (materialism: 1. parents: 0).
Most of our kids could use a little refresher course on the reason for the season — that is, the season of Advent. How can we instill penitents’ hearts in our children so that when Christmas finally arrives, they’re ready to receive their Savior and not just that sweet new gaming console?
Remember: it starts with you.
How is your prayer life this Advent? Are you doing any spiritual reading? Have you been to confession lately? Be honest: What’s taken up more space in your head since Advent began — the miracle of the Incarnation, or where to find the best deal on an ultra HD TV? (Author is guilty as charged.)
We all know our kids learn about priorities by watching us. What do your actions say about what Advent means to you?
Give alms, not (just) gifts.
When people refer to the weeks leading up to Christmas as the “season of giving,” they’re usually missing the point. Like Lent, Advent is a season of penance. It’s not a penitential act to lavish gifts upon the people you love.
Before the space under your tree starts filling up with wrapped packages, take the time to go through what you and your children already own — together. Gather a generous selection of toys and clothing to take to the needy — and make it hurt, at least a little. This isn’t just a decluttering exercise; it’s about sharing our abundance with those who don’t have enough. Don’t unload your family’s unwanted junk on them. In an age-appropriate way, suggest your kids share some of the best of what they have (needless to say, you set the example by doing the same).
If your kids’ toyboxes and shelves aren’t overflowing with excess, perhaps they can use some allowance or early Christmas money to purchase a new toy for a toy drive, food for the community pantry or even to sponsor a needy child or elderly person through a program like Unbound. If you can find a means of giving that will allow your children to see the joy on the faces of the people they’ve helped, so much the better — it will take some of the sting out of their sacrifices and put a human face on those who suffer in poverty.
Perform acts of service.
With all of that going on, you might ask, who has time for a service project? The answer is easy: everyone.
My eight-year-old’s religion teacher gave each student a little manger to take home, along with a bag of clean straw. With each conscious act of sacrifice or kindness, no matter how small, the children can add a piece of straw to the manger. In this way, with their good works, they prepare a bed — and their hearts — for baby Jesus. Likewise, some families I know turn the traditional Advent calendar on its head — instead of compartments full of little treats, each day brings a slip of paper describing a specific act of kindness to be performed by the recipient. I’ve also heard of people replacing “Secret Santas” with “Advent Angels,” where each participant draws the name of another, and spends Advent secretly praying, sacrificing, performing acts of kindness and even leaving small gifts for that person. Regardless of the method, the point is the same: to keep people focused on serving others.
Go to Confession. Bring your kids.
If you haven’t been going to confession regularly (most spiritual directors suggest going weekly or monthly; Pope St. John Paul II went daily), why not begin this Advent season? Not only does the Sacrament of Reconciliation give you that squeaky-clean feeling in your soul, it gives you graces to help you stop committing any sins you confessed. It also sets a great example for your kids — of humility, responsibility and faith in the Church and Sacraments. If your kids are old enough, it’s a great opportunity for them to receive the Sacrament too. If they’re not, then seeing you do it gets them used to the idea. Everyone wins.
Ready … set … rejoice!
Advent is shockingly short. Mary and Joseph had 40 weeks to prepare for the first Christmas — that’s ten times longer than we get now. Use this time wisely, and teach your kids to do the same. Then, on December 25, you’ll all be ready to receive the greatest gift of all: our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Now, that’s something to celebrate!