Your Presents or Your Presence? How to really enjoy this festive time with your family.

Updated: Dec 5, 2018


With the excitement of the holiday season in full swing, many parents wonder how to make it enjoyable for their children and families; and how to balance the focus on gifts with the deeper meanings of the holidays like family togetherness, friendship, gratitude and love. Presents and presence aren’t mutually exclusive.


This time of year is extremely exciting for your children with entire neighborhoods dressed up in lights, families and friends getting together, stores overflowing with enticing toys, and the promise of gifts. But true happiness is deeper. In their book Smart Love, Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper identify two forms of core happiness that parents nurture in their children: primary and secondary. Primary happiness is only nurtured within the parent-child relationship (your presence) and secondary happiness stems from all the external positive things in life (your presents.)


As the Piepers emphasize in their follow-up Q & A, Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood, “It is normal and natural for your children to focus on the fun of getting presents and not be terribly interested in the more abstract meaning of [the holidays] that are important to you. Their intense interest in gifts does not mean that they will grow up materialistic or unable to appreciate the religious or family significance of [the holidays.]


“It is so important to remember that children are works in progress and that the way they are at three and six is not a sign of how they will be at twenty-three or twenty-six (or even at thirteen and sixteen). As your children’s minds mature, abstractions such as religion or family togetherness will become real and meaningful to them. So rather than feeling disappointed in your children, you can be proud of them for developing normally. Paradoxically, the best way to teach them to appreciate family togetherness and religious values is simply to love and enjoy them; they will copy your caring and compassion and become the adults you are hoping for.”


Many parents can recall a holiday when they received a much desired toy. The excitement of getting it was almost unbearable. And when your parents shared in your joy, happiness, and elation, it strengthened your younger self’s inner happiness. That same toy from years ago may no longer bring you joy – but the memory of the love that toy represented from your parents stayed with you.


The holidays can be stressful. The pressure on parents to shop bake, cook, get together and so on can distract us from enjoying the season with our loved ones. If you are feeling these pressures, you may want to ask yourself, ‘what do I need to enjoy this season with my family so that I can be present too?’ A toy is just a toy, but to your child receiving the admiration and love of their parents at this time of year is a memory that will build their inner happiness for the long term.


As defined by the Piepers in their seminal book Smart Love, primary happiness is the happiness that is generated from the relationship a child has with their parents. Primary happiness is set in early childhood and is a child’s most important developmental achievement. Resiliency, self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-worth stem from primary happiness. Having a stable primary happiness allows one to bounce back from set-backs, not be devastated by failure, and to focus on positive relationships and make healthy choices.


When one’s primary happiness is stable, everyday losses – things like missing the bus, being stuck in traffic, forgetting something at the grocery store, not scoring well on a quiz – do not shake it. People with stable primary happiness do, of course, experience all the emotions associated with losses, such as sadness, disappointment, frustration and anger, but their stable happiness is not effected by these normal ups and downs of life.


The other form of happiness is secondary happiness, which is “generated by the joys of everyday activities,” such as playing with friends, getting a toy, walking the dog, and so much more. As with primary happiness, secondary happiness follows a developmental course. Especially, for younger children, secondary happiness is intermittent and unreliable because it depends entirely on their ability to attain short-term desires, which are, by definition, temporary - the joy from winning a game or unwrapping a gift will “wear off” eventually. But by the end of adolescence, secondary happiness becomes stable when one matures enough to recognize that “making constructive choices and pursuing them well is more reliably satisfying than getting what you want when you want it.”


Excerpts from:

Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Press, 2011.


Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., a collection of Q & A’s originally published in Chicago Parent magazine, 1999 – 2008.

Natalie & Ben Heineman Smart Love Center

2222 N. Kedzie Blvd.

Chicago, IL 60647

Oak Park Location

1010 Lake Street, Suite 500

Oak Park, IL 60301

Preschool: (773) 665.8052 ext. 1

Counseling: (773) 665.8052 ext. 4

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