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Presents versus presence

Wendy Anderson

Hanukkah is a special time to come together with family and loved ones to celebrate culture and tradition. The miracle itself. The candles … The presents!

Of course children love that last part and no doubt have made it abundantly clear what new material things they’d like to receive. {mprestriction ids="1,3"}But what they might not always be able to tell you is how much they’d also love the gift of your time.

Modern life doesn’t always make that easy. That’s a reality to which many of us have resigned ourselves. Work, family, friends, school, social obligations, even social media all pull on us and squeeze our ability to prioritize our time.

The key to that is finding a balance in what works for you personally and your family. We often think of balance in terms of moderation, like watching what we eat and drink or how we budget and exercise. Balance means we keep ourselves in check. When everything is in balance, much like in the world, there is typically harmony and stability.

But how do we find that balance in a way that can make both you and your family happy? When we became parents, we made a commitment to love, teach and care for our children. That automatically means less time for ourselves and a certain degree of sacrifice in order to tend to their needs.

Sometimes all it takes is slowing down even a little in our fast-moving world to assess our relationship with our children. We can’t be so stuck in our daily regimen and routines that we can’t shake things up even a little to better accommodate the emotional needs of our children.

As a child and family therapist for many years, I have witnessed many children who weren’t given adequate time by their parents. Their self-worth suffers, as does their ability to love, accept and understand themselves and others. The key here is that it doesn’t take much to give kids what they need.

Children thrive both mentally and emotionally when they are provided with love, affection and attention. This begins with nurturing their sense of self and a healthy parent-child bond.

Nurturing can be as simple as listening in that moment when they ask to tell you about their favorite Pokemon character (for what seems like 20 minutes!), or how a kid treated them poorly at school, or how they’re excited about a new movie coming out. In those extra minutes the gift of providing your time and attention can make a child’s perception of themselves — and of your relationship with him or her — increase tremendously.

To do this means shutting out some of the many distractions that continue to compromise our time. Admittedly, that gets more difficult with each passing year. An easy way to start is for you to simply put your phone away when you come home for the evening. 

It’s important to remember, too, that quality counts just as much as quantity when it comes to time spent together. Healthy families find balance here, too. Kids know you have demands outside the home, but when you are home, try not to let those reel you back in.

You are your child’s most important audience and sometimes all it takes to make them smile inside is to be attentive. There are many things we might take for granted that have more meaning for our children than we might imagine. Consider cooking a meal or sharing a movie, throwing a ball, playing a game or simply going for a walk. 

So when we sit down with our children this year to light the menorah or feast on latkes, be sure to reflect on the importance of true togetherness. Gifts can’t be considered a trade-off or compensation for time spent together. Your presence is often the best present of all.

Wendy Anderson, LMSW is the child and family therapist at Jewish Family Services.{/mprestriction}