It really bothers me when my children simply assume they can have all the newest video games, see all the first-run movies, and buy toys they see advertised on Cartoon Network. Two years ago at Christmas time, I actually felt embarrassed at the obscenely large heap of opened boxes, crumpled wrapping paper and bows at the end of our driveway. The next year with the economy souring and millions of Americans losing their jobs, my wife and I informed the kids that Christmas, 2008 would be scaled back. Still on Christmas morning I heard some grumbling coming from their little mouths. That night I tossed and turned trying to figure out how to give my kids a much-needed dose of perspective and a greater ability to see a bigger picture. It cost me several hours of sleep but I managed to formulate a plan and — finally — to fall asleep.
The next morning, I woke up early and called my 88-year-old grandfather living in Arvada, Colorado. I filled him in on what was going on and told him to expect a phone call from his great-grandchildren in a few hours. When the kids got up, I summoned them to the kitchen table and explained to them my disappointment in what had happened the previous day. I told the two older kids — then 10 and 8 — to get two blank pieces of paper and pens and their respective cellphones. I programmed into their phones their great-grandfather’s phone number and told them to prepare 10 questions to ask him about what Christmas was like for him growing up in Davenport, Iowa in the 1930s. While the rest of the family went out for the afternoon to shop for a new kitchen table, they were to stay home, work on the questions, make the phone call, take notes, and write up a little summary. I wanted them to dial the phone and speak to another adult without anyone around to assist. When we returned several hours later, the kids filled us in on what they had learned. They heard about how their great-grandfather’s mom and dad could not afford a Christmas tree during the Great Depression. One Christmas when he was the same age as my kids are now, my grandfather received a sock with an orange in the bottom (it was the only orange he ate all that year). Another year, he and his brother had to share a single gift–a model car. “I hated Christmas,” he told my daughter.
I sensed that this first exercise had been good for the kids, but not yet enough.
After the holidays and back at work, I called the Washington DC gas company and asked someone in their public affairs department if they wouldn’t mind playing along with my little scheme. The gas company public information director thought it was a great idea and put me in touch with one of his representatives who was especially good with kids. Meanwhile, I again told my kids to prepare 10 questions for the gas company about such things as how many households in our area couldn’t pay their bill and had lost their electricity during the holidays. The phone call went off as planned and my children wrote up the answers to their questions and reported back to me what they had learned.
At the time, I asked myself whether this whole plan was just some crazy scheme that would be soon forgotten. In the end, I believe it had an impact. In fact, the experience came in handy when I lost my job three months later. Although my kids still are not deprived of much during this recent period of reduced income, I was able to explain to them the situation and asked them to pare back their expectations. And so they have. And in doing so, I think they now realize that what is a scaled back Christmas for them is still more bountiful than what is under the tree for most kids their age.