By Bethany Hardy
Parents often lose themselves amid the chaos of preparing for the holidays. All too often, the stress can stay with you long after the guests leave and the last new gift is put away.
If you tend to equate the holidays with cursing traffic at the mall, why not take a new approach this year? Here are five things you can do to create meaningful traditions that your children will appreciate more than any stocking stuffer. Best of all: most of them are free.
1) Write an annual letter to your child.
On my preschool-aged son's first birthday, I started a tradition of writing him a yearly letter filled with my observations as his mom, as well as my hopes for his future. The holidays are an equally appropriate time to mark your child's growth with a special message that will be cherished for a lifetime. I've sealed my son's letters and stored them in a keepsake box until he's old enough to read and enjoy them.
2) Do a Secret Santa gift exchange for charity.
This year, when you draw names to determine who's buying for whom, turn the tables. Instead of buying a present, make a donation or spend time volunteering for a charity of the giftee’s choice.
Find activities suitable for the youngest members of your family so everyone can get into the spirit of serving. Tricia Puskar, associate director of outreach at Save the Children, says there are lots of “creative, tangible” ways for young children to support a charity. Her organization teaches kids to how to knit caps for premature babies in developing countries with limited access to incubators.
Provide context for your children with age-appropriate messages about why helping others is important. For example, “Tell your child that babies are born every day who don’t have access to a warm hat or other simple things that can give them a healthy start in life,” Puskar says.
3) Make a family walk an annual event.
Whether you have a houseful of in-laws visiting or it's just you, your spouse, and your baby this holiday, walking is a great way to spend time with each other, let off steam, and work off those extra gingerbread cookies! Set aside time — even if it’s 30 minutes — to get outside and stretch your legs with the family.
“Getting kids connected with their senses is important,” adds Anne Glick, wildlife viewing section leader at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, who says that taking a family walk helps young children “appreciate the sights, smells and sounds” of nature.
Before you go out, make a scavenger hunt-like list of tasks for your kids, Glick suggests. “Kids can listen for different bird sounds, feel the differences in texture of leaves, or trace the patterns of tree bark on a piece of paper.”
4) Leave a legacy that lasts (and helps the environment).
Each New Year's Day, plant a tree in honor of your child(ren). Hold a special ceremony in which everyone in the family plays a part in planting that year's tree, and take lots of pictures, both when the tree is planted and over the years as it grows.
There are tangible benefits to “encouraging a connection to trees,” says Frank Lowenstein, climate adaptation strategy leader at The Nature Conservancy.
“Research shows that kids who spend time outdoors grow up healthier, happier, and smarter than kids who don’t,” Lowenstein says. “[And] over 90 percent of Americans agree that trees are important to the character and quality of life of their community.”
5) Take part in a community service project as a family.
Designate a day that will be devoted to serving others in your community. Do some Web research to create a list of local options, then vote on the project you'll complete as a family.
Lots of unique volunteering opportunities exist for families, says Paul Gilbertson, founder of ReachaChild.org, which supplies first responders with backpacks of books to give to children at the scene of an accident, fire, or other traumatic incident.
“One of the most inspiring things I see … is when young kids — Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, students — call us about putting books in the backpacks,” Gilbertson says, recalling a 7-year-old boy who asked for donations to the organization instead of birthday presents.
Whatever traditions you and your family create this year, remember to relax and have fun! Rest assured that your kids will remember the memories you make together more than any Barbie or Nintendo game they receive. And the lessons you teach them about giving back will last a lifetime.
Bethany Hardy is a Washington, DC-based mom, writer and communications consultant.