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Christmas, 2015

Christmas is a most traditional holiday. But today, despite the Christmas lights and decorations, we do not live in a traditional world.

Our nation and the world are deeply divided. Differences have always existed and indeed the peaceful resolution of differences is what democracy is all about. Most of us are saddened by recent events. Some of us are frightened, if not for ourselves, for our children. And frightened people long to go back to feeling safe again, to their own identity group, community, religious affiliation. The 24-hour news and the Internet bombard us with in-your-face information so, after seeing many pictures of the horror du jour perhaps we all have a touch of PTSD by proxy.

Because we fear “the other” we huddle with our own group and like-minded people. Thus we become more polarized and divided. The way I see it is we are all one people on a fragile planet and we have to learn to work together peacefully. We have no choice. And the way to make this happen starts with reaching out, not retreating behind tightly-guarded borders. And raising our children to see, and celebrate, the similarities among people, not the differences between them. America’s “melting pot” has given us diversity and enriched our nation.

So for this Christmas in a far from traditional world let me suggest some non-traditional, non-wrappable gifts to give your children this year. Start by reminding them that people of all races, genders, nationalities, and religions are alike. We all feel pain, we all bleed when injured, we all want to live and raise our children in peace.

The first is the gift of kindness. Treat your children and each other kindly so you model kind behavior. This does not mean wimping out of your parental duties. Our job is to discipline and socialize our children. But we can try to be aware of how the child feels. A study I read years ago noted that preschoolers are told to stop or start doing something every 7 minutes! Balance that negative experience with choices the child can make and providing things the child wants to do. Plus lots of hugs.

The second gift is tolerance. Be tolerant yourselves and take every opportunity to find “teachable moments” that help instill tolerance. You see an injustice? Ask your children how they would feel if that happened to them. Discuss together what can be done about the intolerance we see. Discuss racism. Talk about homelessness. What can we as a family do? Give your children opportunities to see those less fortunate than themselves. Take them with you when you are reaching out to people who need help.

I just heard a sweet story about a three-year-old boy in who has befriended a homeless person in a large city. The boy and his mom stop at Starbucks every week on their way to preschool. One day it was crowded so sharing a table was inevitable. The child led the way and sat next to a homeless man with many bags. Child: My name is Joshua, I have new shoes. Homeless Man: Nice shoes. J: Why do you have so many bags? HM: I don’t have a home. J: Where do you sleep? HM: In the park. This dialogue started the friendship and the three now meet every Friday and talk. The boy and his mom are shopping for a suitable holiday gift. Seize such teachable moments.

The third gift is rationality, especially important in the world we live in. Children today must grow up with the capacity for rational thought, critical thinking, and must know how to make wise choices. Our non-traditional world today is often the antitheses of rationality. If you don’t believe me look at the news. Our children live in a world that is guaranteed to undergo rapid and continuous change. And a world where the internet and social media provide information rapidly and often unverified. Anybody can say anything.

Our children must be able to sort out fact from fiction from propaganda from marketing. Seeking truth may be harder today than ever before. Sadly the information we seek is managed by algorithms so we retrieve what we already believe. Teach your children to seek out the opposing points of view. And most important teach them that, when they are absolutely sure of their position, the opposition is just as sure. The trick is to be (or act) a little less sure and seek common ground. This above all, teach your children to tolerate ambiguity. In a complex world there will be many ambiguities.

Giving your children these gifts requires much time and will take many years. The conversations and examples you provide you with a gift as well: precious connection time with your children who grow up so fast.

I am not Dr. Grinch so feel free to buy your children traditional, wrapped Christmas presents. (However Dr. Heins does warn parents to avoid toy overload.)

I wish all my readers, no matter what their religion or ethnicity or political persuasion, a joyous holiday season and a happy, healthy, peaceful new year.