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Here are some ways that you can incorporate Montessori principles into your family’s celebration of the Christmas season. These are gifts that will have a lasting impact.

The gift of work

Help grow your children’s fine motor skills, concentration, and sense of being a contributing member of your family by engaging them in making holiday decorations for your home. String popcorn for the tree, make clay decorations, cut and glue paper chains, pour Christmas candles. While, in Montessori, we put more emphasis on the process than the product, there are so many great internet articles out there on eco-friendly Christmas crafts, that you will easily be able to transcend tackiness and hit hipster levels of cool with your homemade décor.

The gift of environmental awareness

Keep Mother Nature in mind when drawing up the Santa list. Avoid the urge to splurge on countless trinkets and tchotchkes that are quickly discarded by your children and end up sitting in a landfill for decades. Model environmental responsibility in your purchases by choosing toys made of natural materials when possible, like the Green Toys Doctor’s Kit, which is made from and packaged in recycled materials. Take the time to explain to your children why this is important.

The gift of creativity

Buy toys that encourage open-ended explorative play. Some examples are wooden blocks, Magna-Tiles, Lego sets, Kinetic Sand, puppets, science sets, and art and craft sets. If choosing video games, ensure they are creatively geared rather than destructive or violent.

The gift of cultural awareness

Encourage your children’s sense of connection to people all over the world. Spend time with your children learning how Christmas is celebrated in other countries, as well as learning about the holidays people of other religions celebrate around this time of year. Head to the local library to borrow some books or DVDs on the topic.

The gift of responsibility

Children should always participate in doing what needs to be done for the family and home. Give your children age-appropriate responsibilities that contribute to the common good: preparing food, doing housework, serving guests, tidying up after gift exchanges. Christmas should be enjoyed by all the family, and your children can still have a magical experience while also being allowed to feel like their efforts helped make the season better for everyone involved.

The gift of personal boundaries

Christmas is a time when rarely-seen relatives and friends descend demanding hugs and kisses from children with the vaguest memories of them. Allow your children to set physical boundaries and give your family members and friends a heads up in advance that this is a practice in your home. Family members may certainly ask if your children would like hugs, but they should also be prepared to hear, “Not right now, thank you,” if your children feel uncomfortable. Think about how often we parents expect our children to grin and bear unwanted physical interactions, and think about the message that sends them. In the same vein, if you have a child who is absolutely horrified at the thought of sitting on Santa’s lap for a photo, have a good think about that too.

The gift of good manners

Grace and courtesy are important. While you are empowering your children to set personal boundaries, be sure to set an expectation of good manners with them, too. If they deny a hug, teach them how to extend an arm for a handshake instead (and make it a nice firm one). Teach your children the importance of eye contact when speaking to anyone (this may be an inappropriate expectation of children on the Autism spectrum, though). When adults ask your children how they are, teach them to answer and then ask the question back. Teach graciousness around receiving gifts. Have a conversation about the importance of the intent of a gift (kindness, generosity, love) well in advance of gifts being received. That way, even if the content of the gift is a dud, your child will be able to interact with well-intentioned–but gifting challenged–Aunt Sheila in a way that doesn’t leave her distraught or disgruntled.

The gift of self-reflection

Santa Claus is coming to town, and if you don’t get your act together, it will be a lump of coal for you! Many parents look forward to the month of December as a chance to use Jolly Saint Nick, and his dreaded sidekick, the Elf on the Shelf, to manipulate their children’s behavior. In Montessori, we aim to avoid extrinsic motivators (both the carrots and the sticks), preferring instead to encourage children to see the direct relationship between their good choices and the resultant good outcomes. Rather than spending the weeks in the run-up to Christmas dangling the Santa threat over your children’s heads, how about making the Christmas season a time for reflection on good choices? Make it a nightly practice in the month of December to have a conversation with your children about the things they have done that day that they feel proud about. Remember, what you focus on grows.

The gift of kindness

Make it a family tradition to spend at least a few hours every Christmas season volunteering to benefit the less fortunate in your community. This is a gift that extends with great length and breadth into your children’s lives. Not only does it make them realize how much they have to be grateful for, but it also teaches them the joy of doing good deeds. Have conversations about those feelings at the end of your time volunteering. Don’t say, “Good boy. Well done.” Instead say, “You really helped. How does that make you feel?” Connect your child with the great feeling of giving.

The gift of you

More than any material gift you can give your children this Christmas, the gift of spending time with you, when you are fully present, is the best gift possible. It is the gift that will endure, long after that “must have” is a distant memory. Put down your phone, get your children to put down theirs (if they’re at that age) and engage. Many of the activities mentioned above will help you to accomplish this–making crafts, prepping food, volunteering, having conversations about good choices together. This gift is a gift for you too, of course. In this very hectic time of year, it makes you stop, and it makes you appreciate. There’s a long-term gain too because the traditions you establish with your children are likely to become, in time, the traditions they share with theirs.

Wishing your family a very happy Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas!

Cultivating kindness and a heart for others during a season of getting isn’t without challenges. This is why we love The Giving Manger—a faith-based, interactive family tradition that encourages serving others while honoring the true meaning of Christmas.

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Cathy Tobin

Cathy Tobin is an Irish immigrant, the mother of three young Americans, a full time educator and part time reporter, and blogger at www.corkwoman.com and www.facebook.com/TheCorkWomanBlog/.

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