For the Mom Who’s Trying to Get Her Kids and Her Holidays Just Right

She started the list a week ago. Her delicate fingers gripped the brightly-colored pigma pens as she scrawled out her heart’s desires on the lined pages of a polka-dotted notebook. Mommy, do you want to know what I have on my Christmas list so far? 

This mama’s inner response was one of frustration and slight panic. Why is she only thinking of what she wants? My children are becoming products of American consumerism run amuck! How am I going to fix this?

I’m not sure what I said at first but within a few sentences I was waxing poetically about how we need to also be thinking about ways we can give and not just focus on what we want to receive. Like a heart surgeon, I wanted to jump right in and fix things. You know, take out the greed, replace it with selfless goodwill and sincere gratitude, stitch things right up and tada! A child who can celebrate the real meaning of the upcoming holidays because I, a righteous and intentional mother, have taught my children well.

As I type these words, I could just choke on the hypocrisy of it all. Not to mention the control, anxiety, and self-righteousness that goes along with it. 

I’m not sure that our foremothers stressed over the intentionality of the holidays and special occasions with their children the way we moderns do. They were not bombarded with Pinterest, blogs, an endless array of magazines, and HGTV segments. As commercialism and consumerism have skyrocketed, so has the “intentionality movement.” {That’s what I’m calling it.} 

Don’t get my wrong, I long to be an intentional mother. My husband longs to be an intentional father.  We want our children to be full of thanksgiving not only this week but every day of the year. We want them to know something of sacrifice and generosity during the Christmas season and beyond. We want to incorporate traditions and practices that point our family to Christ instead of to the Toys ‘R Us Big Book of Presents. 

And we can stress ourselves to death trying to do it. 

We can wallow in guilt when we don’t live up to our expectations. 

We can consume ourselves with attempts to undo the consumerism. 

We can look at what other families are doing or not doing and feel like maybe they’re getting it right and we’re not. 

I don’t have answers. I never have answers. But writing and sharing helps me process the tangled state of my heart and mind as I consider the unnecessary pressures and obligations of the holidays. Personally, I long to be reasonable and balanced in a way that fits the uniqueness of our family. 

I like pretty things and baking and crafts and sacred traditions. But if my family emulated every great and intentional idea we’ve ever seen, we’d be up to our ears in Advent calendar-ing and devotionals and cookie-baking in the shapes of Christmas symbols and doing lessons on the Christian history of Christmas and volunteering in homeless shelters and giving shoes, toys, clothing to the needy and buying goats for a family in Africa and making sure each child only gets 3 gifts because that’s what Baby Jesus got from the wise men…

And I am so not even done. 

Those are all wonderful endeavors. You may do some of them. We do some of them as well. Do not misinterpret my condensed list of good things as cynicism, sarcasm, or apathy. It’s because I care quite a lot about mothering well and modeling compassion that I stress and digress. 

We are called to give generously and to live sacrificially. Honoring traditions create lovely memories for our children that they may even want to honor with their own families one day. 

But we cannot do every good thing. 

We cannot change the hearts of our children even though we try like mad to do so by mandating certain behaviors or instituting various family practices.  

We cannot save the world. That’s what Jesus came to do and is doing. I think the most lasting thing we can do with our families is to speak, love, and live every day in light of that Truth: Jesus came! To save the world! 

Gratitude for the truth and beauty of the Gospel inspires and enables me {and my family} to shine a light in the small, humble corner where we live. 

Dr. Tim Kimmell in his book, Grace-Based Parenting, says this about families:

God left our families in communities to serve as porch lights, if you will, for the lost people around us. We are to be the steady glow that helps them find their way out of the darkness. When families are committed to being this light, they are inclined to live more intimately with Christ. {And I would argue that the inverse is also true: When families live more intimately with Christ, they are supernaturally more committed to being this light.}  

… {Historically} Parents armed with little more than a vibrant relationship with God consistently served as the ideal springboard for great people. So something changed. We got scared. And I think that fear is what motivates so much of the Christian parenting advice we get. 

This excerpt was not written to address the issue of being intentional with our kids regarding the holidays, but his words nonetheless apply. 

We fear that we’re not doing enough in our family and for others. We fear that our children won’t be compassionate and generous if they’re too excited about their own presents. We fear that they’ll be lacking somehow if our own traditions are missing creativity and consistency.

When I’m motivated by fear, I tend to control and manipulate. Things become contrived instead of sincere, forced instead of free-flowing. It’s ugly.

I often think of Emily Freeman’s quote in Grace for the Good Girl

Fear drives. 
But Love leads. 

Do you know what I wish I’d said to my daughter when she came to me with childlike excitement over her Christmas list? 

I love your list. This list shows me how much you appreciate beauty and anticipate delight. You know, God made us this way. In the garden, there was a limitless supply of beauty, an endless array of his good gifts. No living thing lacked anything. That’s how we were created to live and one day all of that will return. In the meantime, dreaming of lovely and delightful gifts show us how much we long for beauty and goodness in a broken world. Receiving and giving presents are a little foretaste of what was and what is to come. And of course all of this pales in comparison to the greatest and most undeserved gift of all: Christ Jesus, through whom all of this was promised and is possible. We have so much to celebrate, so much to receive, so much to give…

Because she is 11, she would have probably tuned me out after the first two sentences. But if we’re living out what we believe every day of the year, though we’re doing it so imperfectly, perhaps it eventually gets through. Trickle-down theology?

Though excess and materialism can poison our hearts, so can good deeds and sacrifice when they’re driven by duty-bound motives or dripping with self-righteousness. 

We can’t make our children’s hearts change. We can simply love them, provide for them, teach them, and model for them, albeit imperfectly. Only God can knock down the idols of their hearts and replace their love for the created with a greater love for the Creator. Only God can do that in my own heart and let me tell you, I sometimes wonder if I’m much further along than my children.

This year I’m starting over, at least in my mind. I want a brand new paradigm. It’s not about getting it all just right. It’s not about making sure my kids love Jesus on Christmas morning more than they love the new Lego set they just unwrapped. 

It’s about pointing our own minds and hearts, as parents, toward the beauty and wonder of Christ and hoping that a bit of that beauty and wonder will spill over and cumulatively settle into the hearts of our children. And also hoping that it will flow into our spheres of influence in ways that are genuine and authentic and personal. Like the squares of a patchwork quilt, there is such beauty in the uniqueness of our families and how God uses us differently in our communities and beyond. 

I don’t know about you but that sets me free in all sorts of ways. And I think it really is that simple…

Start first with my own heart. Live gratitude. Receive the love and mystery and wonder of Christ every day.

Perhaps setting our minds on these eternal truths will have a way of making everything else fall into place over the coming weeks.

A thrill of hope, the weary mom rejoices…


How about you? Do you struggle with “intentionality guilt” like I do?


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{This post appeared in BlogHer’s “Family” section, November 26th, 2012}

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  1. says

    Thank you. Your writing is a gift to me. With the crazy of three kids under the age of five I don’t stop enough to really reflectwhat I am thinking or feeling. Reading your posts are so helpful, I find myself thinking Yes, Exactly, or Me too. Much love to you.!

  2. says

    I needed this reminder in a bad way. I get too worked up with mommy guilt, thinking I’m not doing enough to teach them and lead them, and to cause them to focus on what really matters this season. And in that process I forget about the fact that its God’s kindness that will led them to repentance, it’s God’s work of grace, not my perfect parenting. I like the concept of trickle down theology, how they will learn from watching me live out grace.

  3. says

    Well, of course I love this. :) I feel like when we do something we think we “should”, we get it all wrong. But…when we know we need to do something, we’d probably better do it. There are reasons and they are only for us, but they will bless us. This isn’t a time for comparing, just like you said. And also, there’s really never a time for comparing. I love hearing about where God is directing the hearts around mine. I like stepping into my own path with a little trepidation and certainty that I’ll flail.

    Also? We cannot expect little kids to “get” this big stuff when we don’t even get it, or when it took us thirty-odd years to even touch the tip of the iceberg!

    I’ll stop now.

    (Now I’m the one not making sense. haha)

  4. says

    This is lovely…. my kids’ attitude is so important to me, but is it because I want them to be grateful, thankful, and selfish? Or is it because I want to be such a good parent that my kids are grateful, thankful, and selfish.

    I had a lovely conversation the other day with a good friend about how our worth can’t be tied up in what are kids are. All our worth comes from Christ, not what we “accomplish” including shaping good kids. It was a lovely wake up call then and it is now, too.

  5. says

    Well said, girl. Honestly, if I let myself, I now suffer from “intentionality guilt.”

    I don’t have guilt about the first seven years of parenting. Oh my goodness, I was like Mary Poppins–practically perfect in every way. But then my world was turned upside down by about half a dozen things at once (most particularly my mother’s slow, agonizing death). I stopped homeschooling and for quite awhile I was just not a very good mom at all. I still shudder at some of the mistakes I made during a terrible few years (yes, years, though I hate to say it).

    But God is good, even when we’re not. I am starting to let go of some of that guilt, although I still have a long way to go. And trickle-down theology? I think that’s the best way for kids to learn it. So as I learn to let go of that guilt and cling to God’s goodness, they’ve learned about God’s goodness, too.

    A beautiful post, sweet friend.

  6. Anonymous says

    Thank you for this post. I recently discovered you through ‘Imparting Grace.’ My three children are all productive and wonderful adults now – but I often feel guilty and beat myself up for things I did not do and say while they were under my roof. (hmmm…do I sense ‘perfectionism’ and ‘control’ here?) However, I endeavor to look forward – and press on – and continue to speak into their lives. You are so right – we cannot change a child’s heart. That is our sovereign God’s role.

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