Great expectations

Family Christmas time has become a negotiation. How to balance what a child wants and what a parent wants, and can afford, to give.

Boy (6-8) screaming, close-up
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What do you want for Christmas, honey? As parents, we ask our kids this question every year, hoping the answers will be somewhere in the realm of possible. I call them the four As: Affordable. (A laptop, a Wii and a new PSP?) Appropriate. (Platforms? You're seven!) Available. (Not out of stock, and for sale in the UAE.) And, perhaps most important, in alignment with our values. "We all want to be good parents. None of us likes saying 'no' to our kids," says Robin Boord, a psychologist and family therapist from Australia now living in Abu Dhabi with her family. But, she believes, a little reality isn't a bad thing.

This year, for example, she bought her son and daughter - both in their mid-teens - musical instruments for their birthdays. "We said, 'Look, we're glad you want to study music, it fits with what we value as a family, but you're getting something really small for Christmas this year.'" And as for the plea, "But everybody has ? (mobile phone, leather jacket, fill in the blank)," Boord says, "that's not a line that works in our house. We just laugh."

I had to laugh a couple of days ago when I asked my daughter, aged 13, what it was she'd told me last month she wanted for Christmas. "I can't remember," she said, looking shocked. So much for "I can't live without". Like many parents, my husband and I pose the question, truly consider the requests, then do our own thing, trying to marry what is desired with what is doable and to include what we want to give our daughter. "What's important is the conversation you have with yourself," says Boord.

It's nearly as important as the conversation you have when a child requests something that you can't or don't want to provide. "Sometimes, you need to ask: 'How come you want [whatever it is]?' Sometimes, especially with older kids, it's not about the material thing itself. It's about wanting to fit in," Boord says. And sometimes, she admits, "it's worth buying the whatever if it's that important to your child".

Bonnie Dion and Manuel Salazar's daughter, Sofia, is not quite five, but she is already part of the family conversation about presents. "We discuss the merits of one toy over another," says Salazar. The family of three, who live in a compact apartment off the Corniche, know there isn't the space for some of the large toy horses Sofia would dearly love to have. "They're useless for us, so we talk with her about getting something smaller, more portable, and preferably without batteries," says Salazar, a freelance photographer. "We try to reason things out, discuss why it's better to make another choice. "But it isn't just a matter of physical logistics. "We're also trying to instil a sense of the value of money," says Salazar. "Bonnie and I tell Sofia that if she really wants something she needs to work for it, to save for it." He admits that, like all children, his daughter is influenced by what her friends have and by what she sees in the stores. "She's a very alert five-year-old," he says.

The other day, father and daughter were in the grocery store and Sofia spotted some cereal boxes - they were at her eye level - with her favourite ponies as little prizes inside. "It's so easy to keep dropping stuff into your trolley, especially at this time of year," says Salazar. Still, he and his wife know they're not doing their daughter any favours by caving into every whim. "It's never too early to learn that you can't have everything that you see."

That's a hard concept to get across at any age, admits Boord. "Children are like us. We sometimes want things we cannot have and we need to be able to tell ourselves, and them - gently, but firmly - that certain wants are not an option." The antidote to saying "no" is saying "yes" to other options. "Set some ritual in motion," suggests Boord. Each Christmas her kids look forward to receiving their Christmas stocking. They're not stuffed with computer games, jewellery or money, but with simple things: an orange, some gold-foil-wrapped chocolate coins, perhaps a yo-yo, gifts our grandparents might have received. Homemade cards are also becoming a tradition in her family. "If you want to give Christmas cards, make them yourself," Boord told her kids this year. She's proud of the cards her daughter crafted for her friends.

We don't make cards, but we do make cookies in our household. Some for us, some for friends. We also look forward each night to lighting the candles of our Advent wreath and singing Hark the Herald Angels Sing (usually off key). And where would we be without Christmas crackers? More a British tradition than an American one, my family came to the pleasures of "the small bang" only a few years ago. I am not talking the six "luxury" Christmas crackers I saw for Dh295 at Lulu last week. The six I bought cost a fraction of that and will give us much shared laughter and entertainment at Christmas dinner. My daughter may be a teenager now, but she still loves wearing those silly paper crowns.

Last week Boord set a new holiday tradition in motion. She and her kids went Christmas shopping equipped with a list: sheet, pillow, pillow case, towel, aftershave, transistor radio, items to be put into a care package for a labourer in one of the Abu Dhabi labour camps. (Find out more about Helping Hands, Abu Dhabi, through As an extra challenge to themselves, her children "memorised the list, then went scurrying through the store to gather in the items." This joint project "gave them a focus," she says. And was a reminder of what we're always telling our kids anyway: Christmas is about giving.