Typically at three or four years of age, children begin to conceptualize materialism. They begin to connect societal messages that may suggest the more material things a person has, the more that person is worth. That can be especially problematic during the holidays when children are bombarded with images of gifts and toys.

Their inclination to fixate on the gift-giving aspects of the holidays is only natural. But rather than acquiesce to the materialistic focus, parents can actually use that preoccupation to teach positive values and morals.

Family traditions are the key because they are powerful symbols of what matters most in a family. Traditions set the tone for the season by reinforcing the most positive messages about it — putting the focus on giving, gratitude, relationships and spirituality.

Developing traditions isn’t always easy, however, especially for parents who grew up with negative holiday experiences. Even for parents who grew up with rich traditions, merging the two may be challenging. But these situations represent an opportunity for parents to create something especially for their family — and especially for the values they want to instill.

To create meaningful traditions, parents need to assess their own holiday experiences and the strengths and weaknesses of those experiences. By determining what they appreciated, what touched them most, and even what they wish they’d had but didn’t, parents then can decide which practices to continue, create or discard to establish their own traditions.

Your traditions should reflect your values. If spirituality is important to you and your family, you can attend church together, participate in re-telling the story of the first Christmas or give gifts (like religious books) that symbolize your devotion.

If you want to put the focus on family, develop meaningful activities that your family can do together such as choosing and decorating a Christmas tree, baking treats or making holiday cards to send to friends and other family members.

To put the importance of giving into focus, you can give toys to needy children, shovel a neighbor’s sidewalk or volunteer as a family for a favorite community project.

Whatever traditions you adapt as a family, remember that parents’ behavior speaks louder than their words. While positive values should be modeled every day of every year, the holiday season gives us an opportunity to reflect and refocus on the gifts we want most for our children.

As published in the December 21, 2003 Edition of the La Crosse Tribune.