There’s more to the season than 60 seconds of frantic wrapping-paper ripping. These expert tips and proven family favorites will take your holiday cheer to a new, more meaningful level.

By Melanie Mannarino
Updated November 17, 2015
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Last year my 5-year-old son woke up early on Christmas morning and opened every. single. present. under the. tree. before my husband and I woke up. When we finally scrambled downstairs, we were speechless. We felt... robbed. The whole point of Christmas morning is to see the happy expressions as your loved ones open the gifts you chose for them. Isn’t it?

“It’s easy to buy the gifts and then see the joy in kids’ faces—it’s instant gratification on both sides,” says Dr. Jeff Gardere, NYC psychologist and assistant professor at Touro College of Medicine. “We each get our emotional fix.” (Or not.) But in a few days the presents are discarded in the corner of the room, he notes. And the real value of gift-giving—the time spent shopping for a person, the thought that went into choosing a present that delights them—is never really acknowledged.

“In reality, it’s more about the experiences we share and the memories we make with our children than about how much money we spend,” says Dr. Gardere. There are many ways to celebrate this season without once consulting an Amazon wish list—or watching your kid open a mountain of gifts. Use these eight ideas as a starting point, and watch your traditions grow from there. Images


Get kids excited by outlining the new traditions you plan to start this year, says Dr. Gardere. Get their input—the ideas may surprise you. “Don’t focus on the deficit of presents,” he says. “Instead focus on the additional memories and experiences you’ll share.”

Father-of-two Jeff Wilson and his wife have nearly done away with store-bought gifts, emphasizing active gifts instead. “Our presents are experiences that keep you growing in some way,” says the host of public TV’s Real Rail Adventures. “We go to a local symphony or a play or a concert.”


Add an extra layer of meaning to gifts by giving kids what they need, not just what they want. Gardere points to a mobile phone or a home computer as a perfect example of this dual-purpose gift. “One big-ticket item might fill both a need and a want,” says Dr. Gardere. “So maybe they get one big gift instead of five smaller ones that they won’t appreciate as much.”

Wilson agrees: “We’ll give the kids a nicer coat than what we might normally buy, secondhand books, or even equipment for their home recording studio, since they both play instruments. It makes them treasure what they do get even more.”


It may sound corny—especially if you’ve got teenagers—but trust the experts on this: Setting aside time to make a craft as a family can bring everyone closer together. “Making decorations and personalized gifts for family members opens the heart by connecting your children not only to you and their family, but to each other,” says family and child development expert Dr. Gail Gross. Not crafty? Spend time singing songs, reciting original poetry, sharing stories, and making up family plays, depending on the childrens’ ages. Or get into the kitchen and bake together. No matter how those cookies turn out, the memories (and photos!) will be keepers.


Whether you’re hosting a neighborhood potluck or a New Year’s open house, invite the kids to help plan the guest list and the menu. “Including them makes them feel part of the celebration,” says Dr. Gardere.

In Wilson’s family, the celebrations start on Thanksgiving and go straight through to New Year’s Day. “We have big meals with friends, we get together for a bonfire with last year’s Christmas trees, we’ll go bowling,” he says. Wilson’s teenage daughters look forward to these traditions. “It’s a festive atmosphere, it’s a party!” he says. “We slow down and make more time for things like cooking together and socializing at the holidays. The girls really value that, and I do, too.”


Give each of your kids the gift of your undivided attention. “Take your youngest to his favorite fro-yo shop, or your oldest to a special dinner,” says Dr. Gross. “Being reminded of just how much they’re loved as individuals is a priceless gift for children.” And it will be pretty special for you, too.


Think of a few family presents your whole gang would enjoy—from a classic board game to a high-tech gaming system, or even new bicycles—then ask everyone in the household to vote for their favorite (majority wins). “Family presents are great because they can be enjoyed together,” says Lisa Kiang, associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University researching gratitude, materialism, and character formation in children and adolescents.


During the holidays, it’s easy for children to become egocentric, says Dr. Gross. Show them how good it feels to make someone else happy by volunteering or contributing to charity.

Philanthropy can be rewarding for children of all ages, says Carla Tardif, executive director of Family Reach Foundation, which provides financial assistance to families of children with cancer. “Meet your kids where they are in terms of showing compassion for people in need,” she says. For younger kids, that might mean learning that other children don’t have the comfort of blankeys and stuffed animals. “Show your child that she can help someone who doesn’t have that,” she says. Encourage older children to come up with their own ideas—whether volunteering at a soup kitchen or hosting a car wash to raise money for a family in need, suggests Tardif: “It gives them ownership of the act, and also helps them appreciate everything they have in their own life.”


Extend your usual thank-yous beyond in-the-moment gratitude: Have your child pose for a photo with the gift and send it to the giver, along with a sentence or two about how much he’s enjoying it. Better yet, if the gift was a crafty one (a paint set, a model clay kit), suggest your child create a work of art for the giver. “It’s a wonderful habit to teach kids,” says Dr. Gardere. “When you acknowledge a gift in this way, you’re really sending a gift back to the giver.”