The Christmas season is upon us. Actually, there are two versions of Christmas. The first is the ideal dream holiday, in which families are close, people travel long distances to be together, kids are excited about Santa and grateful for the presents they receive, and the food is top shelf. Then there is the real Christmas, which can unfortunately bring out the worst in both grownups and kids: self-centeredness, ingratitude, demands and ultimately, feelings of disconnection between people who should be intimate during this special time of year. It just shouldn't be like that, but it often is.
The culprit of much of this Christmas reality is an attitude called entitlement, and it is pervasive and damaging. In my new book, The Entitlement Cure, I describe the problem as two stances that people take: I am not responsible, meaning that I am not accountable for how I impact others, and that someone else owes me a good and happy life; and I deserve special treatment, meaning that I shouldn't have to wait in line for what I want, because of my specialness. It tears down families, marriages, relationships and organizations. Entitlement is pervasive, and comes from several sources: our culture, our family dynamics, the media influence and our own inborn propensity to make it "all about me."
This Christmas, however, you can go a long way in stopping this holiday killer. Below are several practical and simple skills to help you navigate a Christmas to savor and remember, rather than one to survive and recover from.
o Give experiences over things. As much as possible, give those you love something to do, rather than something to have. For most of us, Christmas isn't about getting something you need, because we pretty much go buy what we need during the year!. So while a sweater, a video game and a wall hanging can be thoughtful, chances are they'll end up going to the garage or goodwill pretty shortly. But an experience lasts a lifetime: a dinner out, a concert, a parasailing excursion, a spa session or a dirt bike race. Giving experiences forces you to think more deeply about the other person's wants and needs, and takes you out of yourself.
o Don't let the usual worker bees do all the work. Lots of families have a gifted cook or host. But that doesn't mean those individuals should do it all. Assign people, including kids, to do those things that the expert shouldn't have to get to: setting up the home, being the sou chef, providing entertainment, and laying out the table. It will create a sense of teamwork and ownership in the group, as opposed to a passive "go get me some snacks while I'm watching the game" mentality.
o Say what you neglected to say to those you love. Christmas is a time of love, appreciation and reconciliation. We all get busy during the year and simply forget to tell people in our lives something specific that they mean to us. This is the time to do it. My wife and I were at a Christmas party this week, and I saw an old friend who had sponsored me and my boys in a father-son organization, with which we were involved in for several great years. It was a peak time in the relationship between my sons and me. I told Bob, "Thanks for many years ago making sure we got involved in the organization." It took 10 seconds. This matters to people.
o Invite those who need inviting. It's easy to get into the huddle of your family and your A-list friends. But this year, think about having someone over during the holidays who isn't in that group, but could really use the warmth and support: someone in poverty, or from the neighborhood, or someone without family nearby. You will make their Christmas 100% brighter and with little effort on your part. Don't be insular this year. Just have a goal: "During the holidays, we will reach out to at least one person who could use it."
o Structure a share time. It's so easy to enjoy the dinners and parties, and yet we can also miss the deeper meaning of Christmas. It's not cheesy to say, "Before the game, we're go around the table and say something about what Christmas means to us, personally, relationally and spiritually." You will be surprised at the vulnerable and authentic things that will come out of people from you'd never expected anything. This again pulls people out of "me" and into "we."
o Keep gifts for 30 days minimum. There will be gifts all over the place, including experiences. But keep that funky tie for a month before you give it away. People notice. Once, I disposed of a project one of my sons made for me, the day after Christmas. I have no idea why, I think I was just trying to get out of the stuff pile. But he noticed it, and has given me a hard time about it, for the last 10 years:)
Your Christmas can be entitlement-free. It is the season for giving: of yourself, of your love and of your time. Merry Christmas!
Dr. John Townsend is the New York Times bestselling author of "Boundaries" and the newly released, "The Entitlement Cure: Finding Success In Doing Hard Things the Right Way" (Zondervan, October 2015).