Parenting Experts: Holiday Shopping for Kids in a Troubled Economy

Here we stand, poised for the holidays–with an economy in a tailspin, thousands of Americans losing their jobs, and many their homes, industries in decline, even seeking to be bailed out, and indications that the economic forecast may get worse before it gets better.

How is it, then, that retail sales on Black Friday, the biggest shopping day-after-Thanksgiving, were up 3 percent over last year?

Are Americans in denial about the economy? Are we buying gifts with money we don’t have? Are we buying presents for our kids at the expense of their futures? And what is the message that we give our kids, when we lean toward making a big splash for the holidays when we should be more prudent of family security?

Parenting experts and award-winning authors Malcolm and Laura Gauld believe this is a common trap parents can fall into, in today’s results-driven culture.

“Our culture has become preoccupied with achievement,” Laura explains, “from the extraordinary focus on grades and awards in school, to parental pressure to provide an overabundance of material gifts, even when it’s irrational, and even detrimental.”

But the Gaulds say it is never too late to shift this trend in our own homes. Happily, the scenario is far from bereft of hope. In fact, it is the situations like these that present opportunity and great potential for building strong principles and bonds in our families. It can also give a family a fresh start at sharing and making meaning–about themselves, their values, the economy, and the holidays.

“This is a time when we can focus on establishing traditions in our families,” says Laura. “The big picture of raising children is done with the actions, routines, and practices that make up lifetime memories, habits, and character.”

To counter the at times overwhelming urge to spend at the cost of placing our families in financial hardship, the Gaulds offer five simple actions parents can take to get everyone on the same page:

  1. Family dinners: where everyone is together, candles are lit, all at the table contribute to the discussion.
  2. Mandatory fun: Pick a certain day every month where one family member gets to select a family activity in which all family members participate. Everyone gets a turn to pick the activity and everyone participates. Parents and their children will be surprised at how much fun can emerge from this simple exercise, despite some possible resistance to it.
  3. Family Jobs: Every family member has a job, a contribution to the home and family. There are ways to make this fun and to help children take enormous pride in their work.
  4. Community service: During a family meeting, parents and their children talk about the various community service opportunities from which they can choose. (Parents bring a list of these to the table in preparation for the meeting.) Everyone gets a vote, and once the decision is made about where the family will do service, every one participates.
  5. Family journal: Where every family member contributes entries on at least a weekly basis to share struggles, successes, and other thoughts. Some of these entries can be shared during the family meeting.

“Often the value of these actions is realized looking back at one’s upbringing,” Malcolm adds. “As parents we have the opportunity to sow these actions, and what we’ll find is they will strengthen a culture in our homes that supports our best and also creates important memories.”

The Gaulds say that without these basic principles we run the risk of reinforcing negative signals and skewed priorities for our children, often leading them toward a false sense of fulfillment and lack of self-esteem. How can providing everything the children ask for, regardless of our financial situation, result in lack of self-esteem in our kids?

Malcolm identifies a debilitating grip on today’s kids, which is the result of a prevalent mindset in our homes, schools, and culture, that asserts that kids need to feel good about themselves all of the time.

“It’s a cult of self-esteem,” he explains. “It is a misguided mindset suggesting that if we make kids feel good about themselves, they will do great things. In fact, it’s the other way around. When kids do great things, they will feel good about themselves.”

“In order to develop real, genuine self-esteem,” explains Laura, “young people must experience some challenges and perhaps disappointments in the form of realizing money doesn’t come easy, and there are times when we all have to work for what we want. Parents must help their kids by allowing themselves to be an example, even if it’s a financially challenged one. Trying to smooth over important issues like the economy’s effect on the family will not help kids to live their lives in the long run.”

“Remember, it is possible to enjoy a beautiful holiday without too much financial duress,” says Laura. “Many families right now are beginning to request that only one meaningful gift be given between relatives. This makes families think and is a creative result of the times.”

Malcolm Gauld is the President of Hyde Schools, the character-building high schools that pioneered the famous “Attitude over Aptitude” philosophy featured on CBS’ 60 Minutes, ABC’s 20/20, PBS, and more. Laura Gauld is Head of School at the Hyde School in Woodstock CT. They are the authors of The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have (Scribner) and ‚ÄòThe Biggest Job‘ parenting workshops that emerged from them. They reside in Bath, Maine and have three children.

For more information on Malcolm and Laura Gauld and Hyde Schools, contact Rose Mulligan at 207-443-7379, or by e-mail at