The gift-giving tradition that these days is so strongly connected with Chanukah can be a mixed blessing. Often, preceding the joy of hitting the right note with a gift are days fraught with the pressure to find it. There’s also the question of how much to spend, and what kinds of values gift-giving can teach our kids.
Are Jews competing with the overkill of Christmas? Are we making our winter holiday too commercial? And, should kids really be making lists of what they want?
Phyllis Folb, an educational consultant, believes it’s possible to both reject and embrace the material expectations attached to the annual holiday.
A mother of two and grandmother of four, Folb loves the feeling of finding the right gift for a family member. But her family has always made clear that the holiday is about more than the perfect present.
“It’s not the gift, it’s the giving,” Folb said in a phone interview.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom said his family has always used Chanukah as an occasion to donate to others who are less fortunate.
“We took the toys [our kids] don’t play with, and the jackets they don’t wear” and gave them away, Feinstein said in a phone interview, recalling Chanukahs when his now-adult children were young.
He described Chanukah as a time for a “real sharing of self, rather than a sharing of stuff.”
The holiday has not always been about expecting parents to deliver the goods to their children. Religious studies professor Dianne Ashton’s 2013 book, “Hanukkah in America: A History,” tells how Chanukah customs evolved in the 1950s. Where Purim was once the Jewish gift-giving holiday, Chanukah used to be restricted to the exchange of gelt.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, however, Jewish child psychologists encouraged parents to buy gifts for their children to allow them to feel more assimilated among their Christian peers — ironic considering that Chanukah is a holiday that commemorates a revolt against assimilation.
The attachment to Chanukah gift-giving took off to the extent that today, when the Christmas shelves of stores like Target and Walmart are filled with the likes of Grand Theft Auto, iPads and more, many parents find it hard to manage their children’s desires.
Family therapist Bette Alkazian advises parents not to put too much pressure on themselves: Children are difficult to please, and gift-giving is a challenging task to master.
“It’s very hard, and it’s very stressful. I think a lot of parents stress about it a great deal. And we don’t please our kids, or we’ll buy them something we think they’ll love, and they’re like, ‘Oh [whatever],’ ” Alkazian said. “We’re always [feeling like we’re] failing our children as parents. Probably [the holidays magnify these feelings], but I think a lot of parents probably feel that way every day.”
Alkazian, who has three children, calls her method “Balanced Parenting.” Her advice to parents may resonate even beyond the holidays: “Just do the best you can, and don’t take anything personally.”
Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of the books “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” and “The Blessing of a B-Minus,” believes children today are smarter and savvier than ever when it comes to manipulating their parents into buying them products. They’ve learned from advertisers and marketers that intentionally equip child-viewers on how to push parents toward specific purchases: This isn’t news to anyone familiar with the terms “pester power” and “nag factor,” Mogel said in an interview.
“ ‘Pester power’ and the ‘nag factor’ are giving kids a script in television commercials to talk their parents into buying them things they don’t need or necessarily want, so they learn how to say … ‘If you buy me a Hawaiian Ice Barbie or the Barbie Primp and Polish Styling set, it will allow me to cook and stimulate my creative imagination,’ and then the parents are totally helpless,” Mogel said.
“The advertisers and the manufacturers … know what parents care about.”
This type of advertising is illegal in some countries. Advertising aimed at children under 12 has been illegal in Sweden since 1991, for instance, according to commondreams.org
Christmas-envy in Jewish families is also part of the problem, Mogel said.
“The big dilemma is that parents are so eager for their kids to be happy, and the kids are so articulate, and they are such good little attorneys, that it’s very hard for parents to say no, especially with all the glitz of Christmas and allure of Christmas.”
One solution is to not give any gifts at all. That’s the suggestion offered up by Ori Zadok, early childhood center director at the Woodland Hills synagogue Kol Tikvah. He said there is no rule that children need gifts during the holidays.
“It’s a sweet gesture to give your child a gift, but it’s not essential for their development. They’ll grow up just fine [even] if they don’t get gifts,” he said.
“One of the biggest problems … in terms of gift-giving,” Zadok said, “is the ungrateful child. The getting of a gift and saying, ‘No, I wanted something else.’ What do you do as a parent? Say, ‘OK, I’ll cave in and get you that next time,’ or, ‘This is what you got and be grateful for it’?” Zadok said.
The lesson is that gratitude is more than something one feels, it is something one shows — and gratitude can be taught, Alkazian said.
“Let’s say we are doing a night of Chanukah at Grandma’s house — even if you don’t like your present or even if you hate it, you need to say, ‘Thank you, I love it,’ and be a gracious receiver, because somebody thought of you and took time to buy you a present and … you need to be gracious regardless of what you think about the gift,” Alkazian said.
And what about families where the parents hope to receive something in return? What are best practices in those cases?
Alkazian says parents should tell their children what their expectations are because they can’t reasonably expect their children, especially if they are young, to magically know to buy something for their parents.
“Whatever the expectation is should be expressed in advance, explicitly: ‘I don’t expect you to spend your money on me, but I would love something handmade,’ or, ‘It would mean the world to me to get a note from you on Chanukah,’ or … ‘Will you draw me a picture for my Chanukah present this year?’ ” Alkazian said.
“Obviously, [the children’s] ages are going to determine what we say and how we say it.”
New York Times columnist Ron Lieber’s upcoming book, “The Opposite of Spoiled,” argues parents need to be frank with their children about their financial limits, and that this can solve some issues. Parents trying to raise grounded children should set limits on what they will or will not buy for their children, but the limits, Lieber said in an interview, are “artificial” if the children don’t understand the family’s financial situation.
“The kids are often faced with limits that go unexplained or are lacking in logic, and the kids’ job in part is to figure out how the world works and how this particular mysterious force known as money kind of operates within it. The whole question of what you get and what you can ask for and what isn’t appropriate to get or give or ask for during the holidays is not a small part of this larger conversation of where the limits ought to exist,” Lieber said. “That’s the framework where the gift-giving happens during the holiday.”
Lieber said he believes in the value of gift-giving: “The science on this is pretty clear now — people really get more long-term happiness from giving something to someone else than they do off the short-term dopamine hit of getting to rip open the present,” he said. “Teaching kids to give is a great thing to do.”