The Spirit of Christmas
Family, friends, food…and gifts.
Lots of gifts.
That’s what Christmas is about for millions of people in the U.S. Of course, not everyone celebrates Christmas, but if you do – and you have a teenager – you’re probably wondering what to get them this year.
And at the same time, you’re probably asking yourself (at least) three primary questions. All three are relevant to your teen’s stage of development, and it’s important to get them right. With the caveat that there are no objectively right or wrong answers to these questions, since every family is different, every teen is different, and what each teen needs out of each winter holiday is different.
So, what were those questions, anyway?
Here’s what we think most parents are asking themselves, in various forms, in households across the country:
- What kind of gifts are appropriate for a teen?
- Am I overdoing it?
- Does the whole naughty or nice thing still apply?
We’ll answer them completely out of order. Starting with question #2.
Am I Overdoing It?
It all depends.
Some families define themselves by their Christmas extravagance. We’re not talking about those families.
If you’re going into debt to make Christmas fabulous, then yes, you’re overdoing it. Sure, most of us put gifts on credit cards, only to pay the balance off just in time to put summer camp deposits on that same credit card in late February or early March. But if you’re going beyond your means – and only you know what that is – then yes, you’re overdoing it.
Also, keep these two points in mind: you can’t make up for lost time or repair a relationship with one Christmas gift. Or with a thousand. The way you accomplish those two things is by 1. Making time for your kids, and 2. Talking to your kids.
And hopefully, you’ll have some time to do both over the holidays.
Next up: question #1.
Appropriate Gifts for Teens
According to adolescent development expert Stephen Wallace, your teen has three main jobs during this stage of development:
- Establish an identity separate from their parents
- Become more independent from their parents
- Create mature, adult-like relationships with peers
So, anything that helps them accomplish those goals is developmentally appropriate.
Gifts related to the first bullet point should be determined by your teen’s interests. If they’re artsy kids, get them things related to that pursuit. Depending on your available means, this could mean anything from a cool sketch pad to a video camera with editing software to a new guitar.
Rule of thumb: if it helps them be more them, it’s appropriate.
Gifts related to the second bullet point should also revolve around their interests, but we recommend giving experiences over things. Again, this could go anywhere, as dictated by your means. A very sporty kid would love a ticket to a pro football game, a week at a specialty camp over the summer, a basketball hoop in the driveway, or a new skateboard.
Rule of thumb: if it helps them pursue a passion, it’s appropriate.
Gifts related to the third bullet point? They’ll learn how to create meaningful relationships with their peers by following your example. Therefore, be kind and respectful to your friends, and they’ll use that template in their relationships. If you want to be intentional about it, make sure they see you going out of your way to do something for someone you care for: that will increase the chances they do the same for people they care for.
Rule of thumb: lead by example.
Now, finally, to question #3.
The Whole Naughty/Nice Thing
Let’s be clear: this entire approach to Christmas is one big dressed up behavior management strategy. At this stage in life, you and your teen should be past it. You want your teen to follow rules because they’re logical and they understand the reasoning behind them, not because they might get a new laptop out of the deal. In our estimation, obeying rules at home and school (i.e. being naughty or nice) is unrelated to the answers to questions 1 & 2.
Rule of thumb: the naughty/nice thing is for the little ones – say under twelve – not the teenagers.
Gratitude: Love, Respect, Kindness
Holiday rituals keep kids grounded, bring them comfort, and remind them that when all is said and done, the things that matter are very simple. We strive to love one another, respect one another, and be kind to one another. When we reach a point in life where we’re genuinely guided by those rules, we’ve accomplished something. And if we teach our kids to live by those rules, then we’ve accomplished something even better.
Finally, if this post didn’t help you figure out what you’re going to get your teen for Christmas one little bit, we offer our favorite gift-giving adage. Get them:
Something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.