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How to explain to your children why Christmas will be different this year

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Downscaling on the traditional celebration children are expecting this year is bound to create anxiety among parents

56% of of South Africans are aiming to cut their usual holiday budget and spend less this festive season. Picture: Karen Sandison/ANA

NEARLY six out of 10 South Africans (56%) are planning to spend 33% less on average this festive season, with a quarter aiming to cut their usual holiday budget by as much as half. That’s according to a recent survey by global comparison platform Finder.com.

Downscaling on the traditional celebration children are expecting this year is bound to create anxiety among parents, says Sharon Moller, Financial Planning Coach at Old Mutual. “Talking about why there is less money this year can trigger our deeply ingrained fears of not having enough and not being able to give our loved ones what they want,” says Moller.

To reduce this stress, Moller suggests parents address the issue head-on and have simple, frank and age-appropriate conversations with their kids. “Children are like sponges and can absorb our unspoken fears and anxieties about money. It’s for this reason that it is always better to have these conversations – and to frame the issue consciously – no matter how uncomfortable it might feel,” says Moller.

A 2020 survey by the American Psychological Association concluded that 91% of children know when their parents are experiencing stress. Thirty percent of youths say they are worried about their family not having enough money, but, according to the same survey, only 18% of parents believe money is a source of stress for their children.

“Leaving things unsaid, on the other hand, increases the likelihood of lashing out or sending children ‘mixed signals’. Resentment about racking up bad debt can result in shame-fuelled outbursts that break down trust and erode your relationship with your child, which can cause irreparable damage over the long term.”

“Indiscriminate spending, on the other hand, detached from the financial stress facing the family after the retrenchment of a parent, for example, can be confusing for children. Kids constantly monitor the money attitudes (often non-verbal) and behaviour of their parents, and any misalignment between the two can result in negative money behaviours as adults.”

Even flippant comments (“Money doesn’t grow on trees!”) can shape their ideas about financial health for a lifetime, which is why it’s so crucial to choose your actions and your words mindfully – but without getting overly hung up on saying exactly the right thing.

Moller offers the following tips for constructive conversations and a life-affirming approach to a more frugal Christmas.

1. Own your own anxiety

It’s perfectly okay to admit to your children that you are feeling anxious, provided you take responsibility for your own emotions – and for the story and beliefs that generate them – rather than making them feel they’re to blame. Doing this won’t break your children. On the contrary, it will build a connection and trust between you and teach them emotional awareness, too.

2. Focus on big-picture positives

Share in a way that promotes resilience – a sense that this too shall pass – and awareness of others’ experiences. We are living through a global trauma, rather than a personal setback. And as difficult as it is, there are big life lessons to learn about the world and about ourselves.

3. Give to your community

Show your children that caring for others is a responsibility – and a great joy. What’s more, it needn’t mean giving money or things. Spending time with the elderly or with children in need is a valuable lesson in compassion, connectedness and purpose.

4. Teach your children how money works

In the age of instant gratification, learning by lived experience what it means to save for something they really want will give your children an understanding of the value of money. Open a bank account for your child and give them the opportunity to work for some pocket money, even if it’s just R20 a month.

5. Connect in new and creative ways

Make family gift vouchers that your children can cash in with you and with each other for experiences – rather than things – they’d love to have: baking cupcakes, watching a movie together, camping in the back yard, playing board games or going to the beach. Find the things they love to do and give of your time rather than in the form of expensive gifts.

6. Model self-awareness, seek purpose

If your children express jealousy of others or a sense of deprivation, help them uncover the meaning behind their desires. It’s human to want what we don’t have, but it’s also an opportunity to have conversations that get right to the heart of some of life’s biggest questions. Why do we want what we want? How would having those things help us be who we want to be or to follow our purpose?

“Our children have a very primal need to be seen and understood for who they truly are. By spending time over the festive season deepening our conversations and relationships with them, we can meet this vital need and share lessons that will last a lifetime,” concludes Moller – long after they’ve forgotten the gifts they received over December.