Kids’ letters to Santa Claus, the ramped-up holiday ads, the image of a perfect Christmas and the wish to make their children happy – with all this, what choice do parents have but to buy, buy, buy?

The answer, according to successful families, child experts and even kids themselves may surprise parents. Instead of spending money, the choice may be to simply spend time together.

“Having a lot of things really isn’t going to create that family harmony that we all long for,” says Margaret Lane, guidance counselor at Walton Elementary School in Auburn. “Children are much more impacted by the climate of the home life than whether they get a particular toy.”

Lane suggests that families have conversations about what they want their holidays to be. Planning simple family activities instead of being swept up by self-imposed pressures could help families relax, and save money, said Lane.

Making frequent trips to the mall just invites whining, begging and complaining from children, she said. Things that don’t cost money include making hot chocolate and reading a book together or making paper decorations for the Christmas tree.

“Christmas is actually a religious holiday, but one wouldn’t necessarily know that these days,” said Lane. “Families should be conscious about what we want to create. The joy for all of us is in our relationships. Maybe parents will be surprised when their children say that they just want to be together for the whole day.”

An ‘old school’ view

Lane’s view may sound nostalgic and idealistic to some, but the idea that traditional family values are important has been creeping back into social discussions. Lewiston native Peter Slovenski recently co-authored a collection of traditional and patriotic values that he terms, “old school.”

Slovenski, head coach of the men’s and women’s track and field at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, said that the biggest challenge parents have today is to raise their children in opposition to the influence of popular culture.

“Popular culture glorifies sex, money and physical appearance while eroding morality and responsibility,” said Slovenski. “We should emphasize the beauty and fun of old-fashioned things – such as music, sports, play, religion and studying.”

Slovenski also runs the Bowdoin College Day Camp for children in grades kindergarten through ninth grade, where dodge ball, a game now taboo on many public school playgrounds and in gym classes, is still encouraged among the many other camp activities.

“One of the principles of the camp is that there are a lot of fun and educational things we can do that do not cost much money,” said Slovenski. “I think we make a big mistake when we connect the quality of childhood experiences to how much money we spend on them.”

A sample of what’s emphasized in “Old School America” by Slovenski, Patrick Vardaro and Rich Sherman includes:

• Doing chores without getting an allowance is old school.

• Recess on a playground is old school.

• Hard work is old school.

• Lemonade stands are old school.

• Spelling bees are old school.

• Having a set bedtime as a child is old school.

• Charlie Brown is old school.

Hand-me-down hopes

Similar sentiments are expressed in “A Letter to My Grandson,” by popular radio commentator Paul Harvey. Harvey introduces his thoughts by lamenting that today’s attempts to make things better for children have actually made them worse.

“I’d really like for them to know about hand-me-down clothes and homemade ice cream and leftover meatloaf sandwiches. I really would,” wrote Harvey.

And a study done for Ronald McDonald House Charities called “Kids These Days: What Americans Really Think About the Next Generation” found that only 37 percent of Americans believe today’s children are growing up with the character to make the country better.

The most common ways Americans described their own children in this study were “lacking discipline” and “spoiled” for the younger ones and “rude” and “irresponsible” for teenagers.

Even the Beatles sang, “Money can’t buy me love.” So why do parents feel the need to buy so much for their children? Why do schools institute reward systems often criticized as elaborate bribery schemes?

“I don’t think parents say ‘no’ as much these days,” said Lane. “Parents are working long hours. They’re tired, they’re beleaguered. Some times it’s easier to give in than to say ‘no’ and deal with the consequences of an upset child.”

Lane suggested that children spend too much time alone with video games that may run counter to their family’s values and in front of the television that bombards them with advertising.

“It’s natural for children to want those things if they’re exposed to them a lot,” said Lane. “I’m really concerned about the effects of commercialization on children. Kids might be getting the message that having things will make them happy.”

In addition to television, Lane noted that many children frequently go shopping with their parents and consider mall-walking a family activity.

However, Lane cautions against the opposite extreme.

“There’s no virtue in saying ‘no’ automatically,” said Lane. “Families need to sit together and talk about what’s really important. I wonder how many families sit down for dinner all at the same time. It’s really hard work for parents to not just have values, but to stick to those values.”

Creating an ideal for family life doesn’t mean that families will achieve that image, but it will give them something to build on, said Lane.

Thinking about values

The perfect Ozzie and Harriet or the Cleaver family doesn’t exist. But many families have found a way to instill traditional values in their children.

The Noe family of Durham, with children in middle school, high school and college, still values hard work and good manners. They still sit down for dinner as a family.

Cheryl Noe grew up in a poor family in rural Canada. Her husband, Walt, grew up in a middle class family in the urban South. But both remember being raised by strict parents, and they’ve sifted through those good and bad experiences to think about raising their own children.

“I think parents are plain old afraid to do what they think is right,” said Walt Noe. “Children need to know that they’re valued and loved, but they also need to know that there are things that are not acceptable and that there are values that matter.”

Walt Noe referred to some parents’ fear of over-disciplining their children, fear of rejection by their children and fear of losing status in their neighborhoods or communities.

Erica, 12, and Doug, 16, agreed that they need and want their parents’ guidance. They also said they value time together as a family. “I definitely prefer time with my family instead of getting stuff,” said Erica Noe, who attends seventh grade at Durham Elementary.

“I almost feel better when my friends come to school bragging about all of their new stuff that I know that I don’t have to, because it’s not important to me,” said Doug Noe, a sophomore at Brunswick High School.

The oldest, 18-year-old Sean, is attending college in Pennsylvania. Sean went through the ordeal of having to buy his first car with his own money and has since sold the car after deciding he was better off without it while in school.

Cheryl, who works part-time as a nurse, and Walt, who is as a supervisor at L.L. Bean, said that they find family life actually getting easier now that the children are older, despite their sports and school activities.

“Their stomachs are more flexible now,” joked Cheryl Noe. “When they were little, we needed to get these kids fed by a certain time. Now we can work around our schedules and still eat together most of the time.”

In addition to the constant reinforcement and communication in the home, the Noes also say their faith is a source of strength and values. They attend church regularly and believe that parents should be a reflection of God’s love.

“Our goal isn’t to cram religion down the kids’ throats,” said Walt Noe. “But we want it to be something that they want and value.”

Erica said, “My friends aren’t religious, but they accept that I am. It really helps that I can tell my parents anything, and that I can always rely on God.”

Cheryl Noe lightheartedly added that “religion is cheaper than a psychiatrist.”

The value of work

Walt Noe also stressed the importance of strong work ethic.

“My father told me – I’ve tried to tell my kids the same – that even if you’re working a $5-an-hour job, do it like it was a $10-an-hour or a $20-an-hour job,” he said. “You should be proud of your work, whatever it is. And it will be noticed in the long run.”

The parents also said it was sometimes arduous in the early days of teaching their children how to wash dishes, sort laundry and mow the yard.

“What a pain that was,” said Walt Noe. “It’s tough to stick to things, every day, when you know it would just be easier and faster to do it yourself.”

Kids comment on relaxing dinners, a clean house, peers

Young people have their own thoughts about this championing of ‘old-school’ values such as family time, hard work and respect. Several students in the seventh- and eighth-grade language arts classes at Durham Elementary were invited to volunteer their opinions.

Here are some excerpts:

My family is kind of a mix of old-fashioned ways and new ways. We do have many traditions, though. One example is that we all eat dinner together. There are exceptions though, such as if one of us has a sports event or if my mom has to work. I like eating dinner together because it give me a break from doing my homework and it is relaxing. I also love to spend time with my family and talk about how each other’s day went.

My family also has many holiday traditions, including baskets of candy on Easter, stockings at Christmas and every Christmas Eve we open one gift. A weekly tradition is that every Sunday we go to church.

I’m torn between saying that we should bring back some old ways and that our society has changed too much. For example, I think parents should discipline their children because it is how we learn. I don’t think that parents should lash their children like they used to. I think that is too extreme. There needs to be an equal balance of new and old ways I think.

Erica Noe, seventh-grade

I definitely would say that my family is not poor. I must say though, my parents are very strict about leaving unused lights on, and leaving the fridge and freezer open. I kind of think that they are a little stricter than most parents, but then again I can’t vouch for every single family out there.

Most of the time I can understand my parents’ reasoning and limits on things, but sometimes I feel like they just don’t want me to have any fun and that they want me to be their slave.

But keeping a clean house is a very important value. Each one of us in my family is valued by each other (although I might have to reconsider when it comes to my brother). My brother and I usually get good reports from other people whom we’ve spent time with, and my parents value that a lot.

Jasmine Osgood, eighth grade

My family holds many values important, including our faith in Jesus Christ, our love for each other, honesty and respect for one another. Money and material things are only considered “things” in our family.

My parents would say “no” to many things my peers have, including a phone or TV in my bedroom, many material things like highly expensive clothes or games, “R” rated movies. However, most of the time I don’t have the need to ask for many of these things.

My opinion is that our society is never too modern or changed to bring back some of the old ways, like saying the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. But we wouldn’t want to re-create a custom that would bring down our society.

Makenna Barley, eighth grade

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