Tuesday, December 22, 2015

We should teach our children the Christmas story

We go to extreme lengths to avoid the religious aspects of Christmas in the public sphere.  Christian beliefs about Christmas might offend someone in our secular and multicultural society, so we ignore its religious and historical background.

The reluctance to mention the origins of this much-loved holiday permeates early childhood learning programs and public schools. Although I support the neutrality of religion in public institutions, there are, in my view, some good reasons to introduce children to the Christmas story.

Today's children are the unlucky beneficiaries of a shift in the way we approach the celebration of Christmas
My children were on the cusp of a shift in society’s approach to the celebration of Christmas. Within a generation, the emphasis on the secular side of the holiday has virtually drowned out its religious origins.

Nativity scenes, for example, were not uncommon in public spaces, and on the personal level, many families still attended a church service on Christmas Day.  In the classroom, the Christmas story, carols and art had a cultural place. A babe in a manger and three kings co-existed with Santa Claus and Frosty the Snowman.  While the secular themes of Christmas had begun to dominate, most schools still included at least a couple of religious carols in their annual Christmas concerts.

My grandchildren are the unlucky beneficiaries of the legacy of this shift. At an early childhood literacy program that I attend with my two-year old grand daughter, the leaders have been very careful to avoid the religious side of Christmas, restricting songs and stories to its secular manifestations.

The nativity story has much to offer
Yet, the story of Christmas has a lot to offer our children. It is beautiful in both its simplicity and message. As long as educators present it in a neutral manner, we should not be afraid of exposing our children to the origins of the season.

Lynn Proulx, a veteran early childhood educator, thinks that the story of the nativity resonates at a deep level with children. She said that it is wonderful to watch children as they listen to the story.  They feel sad when no one will help Mary and Joseph; then they feel happy when Jesus is born. Feelings of love and peace replace their feelings of anxiety and worry.  The story, said Proulx, provides an excellent opportunity to teach empathy and to help children learn the values of kindness, helping and sharing. 

The story of the nativity raises questions for children about the manner in which we treat one another.   It should raise the same sort of questions for us.  As Quaker theologian Parker J. Palmer framed it,  “What good works wait to be born in us?”  

Our country is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition
Of course, there are other stories that teach these same values, and that have nothing to do with religion. However, the story of the nativity should hold a special place within our society because it is part of our collective patrimony.  Our country’s roots go back to the Judeo-Christian tradition. This tradition has shaped our culture, values, social institutions and judicial system.  Our heritage includes centuries of religious art, music and literature that drew (and continues to draw) inspiration from a babe in a manger. Exposure to this cultural canon makes for a well-rounded education and a better understanding of our self as a nation.

There is also a historical background to the holiday traditions that we continue to hold dear.  Children may wonder why we put up lights, decorate trees, and give one another gifts. These traditions are part of the history of Christmas and western culture.

The Christmas message is universal
Our children intuit the universality of the Christmas message.  It is summed up in the very first Christmas greeting, “peace on earth and goodwill towards men”.  It is in the air and in our greetings to one another over the holiday season, which encourages and inspires us to act with greater generosity.  While everyone does not believe in “the reason for the season”, there is something transcendent about Christmas.

It is shortsighted to restrict children (and ourselves) to a candy cane diet of Christmas cuteness.  There are meat and potatoes on the table, too. Christmas is a celebration of substance. Its Christian origins have a place alongside the magic of Santa Claus and his flying reindeers.  Knowledge of the Christmas story, with its universal message of goodwill towards all people, may actually be in the best interest of a secular and multicultural society.

Teaching kids gratitude at Christmas

Maybe I am romanticizing when I say that the Christmas of my childhood was not about stuff.  There were fewer products, less pervasive advertising, and no Black Friday sales.  A few pages at the back of the Sears Wish Book were the inspiration for visions of sugarplums dancing in my head.

Surely, the focus on consumerism is affecting our kids and their ideas of happiness.  To find out I contacted Mike Ferry, author of Teaching Happiness and Innovation, whose research on happiness focuses on children.

It turns out that my instinct was correct. Ferry sees consumerism as a “big problem” for kids and a roadblock on the way to becoming appreciative and contented individuals. “In the consumer age, our happiness is based on consuming the latest and greatest and newest.”  This message is not good for our children.

The abundance paradox
Over his years of researching the science of happiness, Ferry has bumped into a phenomenon called the abundance paradox; the more we have, the less we appreciate anything.  Mass production and cheap labour markets have created an abundance of readily available goods.  As a result of this abundance, “we live in a throw away, disposable age.  If our kids are growing up within this abundance paradox concept then it’s really hard for them to see the value in things; it’s hard for them to enjoy anything.”

While Ferry points out that “we might be wired to whine”, modeling gratitude for our kids will help them (and us) become more grateful. “If we can teach our kids to practice gratitude in the home, then we will be able to combat some of this abundance paradox and our children will start to appreciate the little things in life and will be much happier as a result.”  This is not only good for the child; it is good for society because grateful individuals have a positive impact on the world.

There has always been hype leading up to Christmas morning.  With the abundance of goods, advertising, and the incessant question, “What do you want for Christmas?” kids can easily get the message that Christmas is about them and their stuff. The emphasis on getting things encourages kids to focus on themselves and ratchet ups their wants during the holiday season.

But there is no need to despair. We can help them become more appreciative and aware of others.  Ferry has suggestions for practicing gratitude with kids in the classroom, some of which I have adapted for Christmas.

Practice gratitude at home:
  • Play the gratitude game around the table before a meal.  Choose a Christmas related word and assign each member of the family one letter.  Each person names one thing for which they are grateful that begins with their letter.  (C is for Christmas cookies; H is for home, etc.)

  • Involve your children in charitable giving. Shortlist a few charities, and talk with your child about their work. Let them help you select the one to which you will make a donation. Encourage them to contribute from their piggy bank.  

  • If you are buying a gift for a person in need, let your children help select the gift.  

  • Avoid the free-for all approach to opening gifts. Take turns. Look at everyone’s gifts, not only your own. Say thank you to those present, and follow up with a phone call or card to those not present.

Everyone wants their kids to be happy on Christmas morning so it can be tempting to go overboard with the gifts.  At the same time, we want to raise kids who appreciate the gifts they receive and the people in their lives.  For the long-term emotional well-being of our kids, it’s important that we successfully navigate the abundance paradox with them.

Our Christmas memories stay with us for a lifetime.  When I look back at the many Christmas celebrations over the decades of my life, I remember moments (like looking through the Wish Book) and not stuff (with the exception of a Chatty Cathy doll that I had desperately wanted, loved much, and played with for a very long time).

Learning the wisdom of another paradox  
I remember sitting with the Wish Book on my lap until I had narrowed down my wants before penning that all-important letter to Santa.  It was a useful exercise that taught me the wisdom of another paradox. Less is more.