Let’s chat about parenting guilt for a few minutes.

Who has ever experienced the soul-crushing guilt of not giving your children the childhood or life you expected? Sure, it’s often out of our control, and it’s not realistic to provide them with perfection, but that does not stop the guilt from coming!

There are so many reasons us parents carry guilt. Everything from the death of a parent or sibling, divorce, financial stress, lack of personal time, our inability to be perfect, and never get frustrated! 

This parenting thing is HARD WORK, and every moment of impatience or imperfection feels gut-wrenching as we are sure we have screwed them up for good! 

Enter the holiday season, and somehow we think or believe that if we buy them more stuff, just put a few more gifts under the tree; it may just make up for the losses in their little lives and allow us to appear a bit more perfect as parents. 

I remember so vividly, our families first Christmas or two after my late husband Mitch died. Like so many parents, I made the common mistake of trying to make up for his death by going overboard with stuff under the tree! Nothing I would purchase would ever bring him back, but I naively I thought stuff would help, and it gave us all that momentary endorphin rush you get when you are buying new things. I knew deep down inside that monetary gifts could never replace their Dad, but that didn’t stop me from trying. I believe my actions were a relatively typical human reaction when we can’t fix a situation that is beyond unacceptable. 

My actions sure did not make for my wisest parenting move to date. 

As I watched my children year two after their Dad’s passing, jump from one plastic toy to the next, mindlessly ripping open packages without little time to be thankful for their many blessings, I felt sick. I was at the beginning of raising entitled, selfish children who valued clutter and stuff over memories and experiences. In their young little lives, they were not learning an appreciation for thoughtfulness nor an understanding of the valuable lesson of giving instead of receiving, and I had nobody to blame but myself. 

Sometimes we have to be completely honest with ourselves and check our own actions so we can make a smarter choice as we grow. Their reality was my doing, and only I could undo it. As I reflect back, this was the beginning, or perhaps a continuation of a valuable lesson I was learning in my own life and from my loss. 

Shortly after that Christmas, I met a wonderful man, and as my relationship with Keith grew, I soon realized he was the man who was going to stay and be a permanent part of our lives. Keith had his own story, which included an unpleasant divorce and two young kids, who at the time, had parents living in two different states. As Christmas came closer, Keith and I, previous lessons unlearned, seemed to be determined to make up for past pain in our children’s lives by once again smothering them with endless presents.

The morning of Christmas 2012 was the first we shared as a couple. It was hard to come to terms with all that had happened in our individual lives and how we would come together as a blended family. We were, this young couple, one widowed, one divorced, both overcoming obstacles and fears, both unsure how to do this life we never planned on. As we made our way to the tree, I went to take a photo, and I stopped myself short of taking the shot– I was embarrassed. It looked like Santa’s workshop had transitioned to my living room. There were so many gifts under the tree, and the magic of the moment suddenly turned to total sadness and regret.

Who were we kidding?

No amount of material objects, toys, or gadgets would replace what these kiddos had lost from death and divorce. Nothing would allow my children to see their Dad one more time, and no gifts would tie Keith’s broken family back together. There are no replacements in any box that gave my kids their father back or Keith’s kids their broken family back. 

I looked over at Keith, and he had the same look on his face – we both knew what we had done. The kids ripped open presents, one to the next, forgetting to ask who gave what and take the time to be thankful for the simple blessing in life.

That was it.

Keith and I drew a line in the sand that Christmas morning and no Christmas since has been the same. From that moment on we vowed to make Christmas, not about the stuff but about the memories we could create and the time that we would spend.

With four kids, Christmas can become cluttered very quickly, but Keith and I have an ever-evolving plan to declutter our lives and raise kids who aren’t entitled and selfish. 

At first, our plan to buy less and live more made us both a little hesitate.

Would the kids miss the magic without so many presents?

Would the lack of stuff make them sad?

Did it matter?

Enter our new plan for a meaningful Christmas – The First Christmas Post Clutter!

For us, it all started with Christmas 2013 when we bought the kids just three gifts for under the tree.

The first gift came from Santa since all four kids were still young enough to believe in the magic of Christmas.

For the second gift, we bought them each a personalized ornament so that someday, when they move out of our home, they will have a tree full of family memories for their trees.

Special family ornament

The third present consisted of a bunch of clues that took them on a scavenger hunt around the house. At the end of the Scavenger hunt was an envelope that let them know we were going on a family trip to California. Our trip was their combined present and allowed our blended family to share an experience instead of cluttering our house with more stuff. Our experience was the gift of time and memories shared and the chance to see new places and things.

Our first experience trip together

To this day, our time in California is still one of my fondest memories of our young blended family. We built sandcastles, ran in the surf, boogie boarded, and so much more. Our kiddos laughter was better than any toy ever placed under a Christmas tree. We even skipped the amusement parks and just enjoyed one another’s presence rather than look to external entertainment. This strategy was a bonus because Keith and I were so much less stressed, avoiding traffic and lines!

The Second Christmas Post Clutter

In 2014, after Keith and I married, we decided to go all out and get them on an exceptional experience they would never forget, and we ended up giving them an adventurous trip to Alaska that included Grandparents tagging alone. This trip was not only an excellent Christmas present, but it also served as my annual bucket list adventure. Those who follow my writing know every year we do something off of my late husband’s bucket list in his honor. Mitch had always wanted his kids to see Alaska, and this trip allowed us to honor that wish and give our kids the adventure of a lifetime in the process. 

We didn’t take our Alaska trip until six months after Christmas, which allowed us to focus on delayed gratification, which is an important lesson for kids of all ages – including adults!! The kids were so excited, and they counted down the months, weeks, and days. Since we returned from that experience, they have told us several times it was the best trip of their little young lives. What is not to love? We went zip-lining, whale watching, exploring, and we cherished each moment together.

Zip-lining in Alaska

Again there were just three total presents under the tree.

One gift from Santa, one ornament, and one awesome trip that filled us with memories for a lifetime! Ironically, given that we are a family of six, we probably spent less on the journey than we did buying throw away junk for under the tree. 

2015 – Three Year Post Clutter

In 2015 we evolved our uncluttered Christmas just a little bit more. In addition to our usual three gifts, we have decided to add two new gifts.

Keith and I plan to give the kids tokens that they can cash in to spend time with us as a family or one on one with each parent. Tokens for family board game nights, throwing the football or seeing a movie. Our trip won’t be as elaborate this year, but we plan to take advantage of our beautiful home state and spend two weeks hiking and exploring the great outdoors. The final new addition this year will be a letter to each child from us. This letter included things we want them to know how we felt when they were born or how they make our lives better. This letter serves two purposes; it reminds us that family is the real value of the holidays, and should anything happen to us, they have our words about how much we loved them. 

Another blog I did on this – The Christmas Letters

When I lost my late husband, I sincerely regretted that he never wrote our kids a letter telling them just how much he loved them and how much they meant to him. On the off chance, something happens to either Keith or myself – I want our kids to have that written love letter.

2016 – Present 

We plan to continue our tradition, and the kids talk about our surprise trip before every holiday. I can’t say what we are doing yet this year, but it will create memories to last a lifetime.

So how can you incorporate these same traditions into your family? How can you prepare and start the tradition of An Uncluttered Christmas?

Tips:

  • DO NOT feel guilty – this is an excellent chance to teach your kids what matters.
  • Make it fun. We suggest things like scavenger hunts and secret clues.
  • Warn them ahead of time. Set expectations, so they understand why the family is making POSITIVE changes.
  • Believe in why you are doing. Kids can read your body language and nonverbal cues, so make sure you are on board too!
  • Make your experience filled Christmas something for them to get excited about and let them give suggestions on family memories and experiences.
  • Follow through. This concept could be disappointing if you never actually spend quality time together.
  • Start family traditions. My kids LOVE opening their ornaments each year and helping to decorate the tree.
  • Use this as a chance to teach them about giving to others and be together as a family!
  • Remind yourself that kids tend to be grateful with LESS than with MORE – I have seen this personally time and time again.
  • Remember, you don’t have to give grand trips or experience experiences. They want your TIME most of all. My daughter told me recently that her favorite Christmas memory was the night we sent them to bed early, and they found tickets on their pillows to ride the Holiday Light Train (our car). They go to take hot chocolate in the care and as we drove around (after bedtime) looking at lights in their pajamas. 

Honestly, ask yourself if you remember any material gifts growing up? 

I sure don’t – but I remember every trip ever taken with my Dad hiking and exploring. 

Memories last – material objects fade with time.

Take lots of photos and give them memory books in the proceeding years so they can remember all you’ve done together.

I wish you so much success with your UnCluttered Christmas. 

It has become one of my favorite things about the holidays for our family.

Good luck,

Michelle

Listen to a Podcast I did on this subject! http://www.anunclutteredlife.com/uncluttered-christmas/