Your Kids Won’t Remember What Was in the Box

by Stephanie Pitcher Fishman
Kids opening Christmas presents in a fully decorated house.
Granger Wootz / Getty Images

It seems like adult conversations in the weeks leading up to Christmas are always the same: What are you getting the kids?

This sentence strikes fear and embarrassment in my core. I’m an indie author and freelance writer. What that means is I’m actually a stay-at-home mom who writes for a living during nap time and after the house has gone to bed. My life isn’t terribly lucrative even if it is blessed.

What am I getting my kids? Probably less than you are getting yours.

When I had my youngest at 42 (and 19 years after my oldest), I expected to be questioned about certain things like my age and my fertility. What I didn’t expect was to question myself about my parenting choices. And I have.

I question how and why I do everything as a parent. Our celebration at Christmas is not immune to the same scrutiny my choice of discipline undergoes.

With our youngest being less than two, we are setting up the traditions and expectations for her future holidays. She won’t be aware of what it all means this year, but what we do now will become a habit so it’s important for us to form how we’d like it to be in 10 years.

I don’t want Christmas to be filled with things she will forget or financial worries that make me feel inadequate as a parent. I want our stories of years past to be filled with memories.

So I started thinking.

Last night, I saw a friend respond on Facebook that she could only name a few of the gifts she received over the years as a child. Instead, she remembers decorating the tree with family, baking with relatives, and what they had for breakfast each Christmas morning.

It was the feeling of the holiday that she remembered, not the material possessions that she received.

I tried the same experiment with my older daughter, now a young woman of 20. I wanted to know what she would recall when asked. Her answers surprised me.

She remembered the movies that we watched each year on Christmas Eve. She mentioned the last gift that her great-grandmother gave her before she passed away. She held dear the vintage  —  aka used  —  vinyl albums that we bought her the year she was discovering her personal musical taste. We spent $10 on albums with ratty covers and pen marks from previous owners. And she loved it.

What she didn’t remember were the contents of hundreds of boxes spread over the other 18 Christmas mornings. She didn’t mention the electronics we gave her that took us a year to pay off on the credit card. She didn’t remember the stuff.

I couldn’t remember them either.

I couldn’t name the items that I bought her the year I sat in freezing temperatures at 2 a.m. in front of the local big box store on Black Friday waiting to fight other deal-crazed parents and grandparents for the sale items advertised in limited quantities. I couldn’t recall the name of the hot toy item of 2002 that we found only after driving to 15 stores scattered over a 50-mile radius surrounding our home.

None of it mattered. The items that I had to have, that I scrimped and saved for, that we cut corners to afford have been lost. Neither of us could remember them.

But we did remember the memories.

It’s time we start focusing on what is important to us  —  and our memories proved that it’s not what’s in the box.

This year we are challenging our idea of Christmas.

Keeping Christmas simple may seem like just an answer to a meager checking account balance. Instead, it’s a fight for what is important. It’s a fight for what we value.

When I am planning out our Christmas gift list each year, I am not just thinking about what my girls would want. I find myself wondering if it’s enough for them to know that they are loved.

I also find myself wondering if others think it’s enough.

Is it enough for the world to see our love? Is it enough that my bonus daughter’s mom will think we are prioritizing her daughter? Is it enough that our kids won’t be embarrassed in front of their friends when they compare notes?

When I really question myself and my reasons for wanting to shop each Christmas, I realize that I’m focusing on the wrong thing. None of this is what the holiday is about. It’s what we’ve made it into.

When we feel it necessary to apologize for the small number of presents or inexpensive cost, we’ve turned Christmas on end and ruined it.

These boxes and baubles don’t give any lasting happiness to my kids or yours. They don’t mend their hurts or calm their worries. They are just material distractions that they will forget soon.

We are changing our focus.

What started as a response to our small Christmas fund has bloomed into something that I want to be seen as a fundamental ideal my girls understand: It’s not about the stuff.

We can’t complain 10 months of the year over the materialism of the younger generations and then buy their attention with shiny new items every holiday season. If our children and grandchildren see it as a gift-receiving holiday rather than a giving season of life, it’s because we’ve taught them that. It’s our fault.

And for what? Forgotten items of no long-term significance that caused long-term stress on our finances?

This year my kids will get a few items that we hope they will love and enjoy. But most of all, they will get us. They will get the memories that we want them to hold dear. We will change our focus from the number and type of items they find under the tree to something they will remember: tradition.

And they will be loved which is worth more than any robot dog you can buy.