12/09/2012 11:55 EST | Updated 02/08/2013 05:12 EST

Behind the Headlines: An Anti-Consumer Guide to the Holidays

Behind the Headlines: The social causes in current events.

In a unique take on daily news hits, Free The Children founders Craig and Marc Kielburger go behind the headlines to explore how the stories you read are connected to the causes you care about. You'll never read the news in the same way again.

We just saw a cartoon on Facebook of a man posting a "Happy Holidays" sign, and another man looking up and yelling, "I'm sick of all this political correctness! Can we just call it what it is?" In the next panel, the sign has been changed to "Happy Make-Your-Kids-Into-Greedy-Little-Materialistic-Consumption-Addicts Day."

Of course, that's no one's actual intention during this "most wonderful time of the year." But it does represent that eternal Christmas angst for all of us gift-givers: how do we celebrate the spirit of giving without being part of the hyper-consumption that makes us feel uneasy?

One answer has been on prominent display on Vancouver's SkyTrain system this autumn. "Create memories, not garbage" is Metro Vancouver's 2012 low-waste holiday campaign that encourages residents to give hand-made gifts, charitable donations, the gift of time, or locally-produced services like music or art lessons. The latter idea is appealing because it's friendly to both the environment and the local economy.

One opening word of clarification: the following ideas -- culled from the hundreds of parents we've met over the years working with socially involved kids -- apply in most cases equally to adult gift recipients in your lives. After all, 'tis the season when we all become kids again, even if only to justify binging on mom's generous trays of chocolate drops and Nanaimo bars.

Parents tell us it's a balancing act: juggling their fears of creating mini-consumption monsters, with a competing desire to let their children experience the fun of opening gifts from under the tree. Meanwhile, grandparents, aunts and uncles often have other plans, which includes showering the wee-ones in their lives with gifts.

Moms and dads who have found a balance tell us they don't wait for the gifts to come in from relatives: they take charge and coordinate the giving binge well ahead of time, ensuring that doting grannies and gramps, who aren't part of the child's everyday life, know what is needed and what is not.

For example, neither of us played a game of organized baseball beyond age eight, yet kept receiving mitts and bats from thoughtful relatives well into our teens.

The wish list is a great tool to prevent that look in a child's eyes when she unwraps a new pair of corduroys. Some parents just ask relatives to pick from the list and send the money, so the parents can ensure the perfect fit: it'll still be "From Auntie Jane" under the tree and in the child's memory.

For the creative types in your family, parents suggest indicating the child's current preferences: what cartoon character they would want on pajamas, what kinds of books they enjoy, or at minimum their current favourite colour.

Of course, what most relatives (especially grandparents) really want is time. So suggest that they take the kids skating, to a movie, or for a special sleepover (this can count towards your gift, too). Then rally the whole family around one major gift: the ones that your child will get the most use from and remember best, like our treasured Nintendo video game station.

We've also talked to families who have put the brakes on anything purchased, insisting everyone gives home-made presents. And others, who are fans of giving coupons for Christmas and birthdays. Why expect a cash-strapped kid to purchase a present, when she can create a coupon for a "free foot rub" to mom, or a, "I'll make Sunday dinner" coupon to dad? These are priceless when they come from a child.

If you're a sucker for stockings, stuff them with consumables like homemade cookies, and things you would've bought anyway, like funky new socks or a mini shampoos, or movie passes. We've heard numerous times that the great thing about very young children, for whom the boxes are often more fascinating than their contents, is that anything new is exciting.

And if you're hoping to give socially conscious, environmentally-friendly gifts, consider Me to We's line of products, such as Me to We Artisans. These accessories and jewelry are made by mamas in the communities in Kenya and India where Free The Children works. As well as providing a fair wage for the women who make them, half the profits are donated to Free The Children, and the other half go to growing Me to We.

Finally, you can take the attention off the gifts by stressing the family togetherness part of the holiday spirit. Make new Christmas traditions like a board games day, sing-along evening or volunteer excursion. Take turns over your few days off choosing a family activity and meal plan. As your children grow older, those are the moments that will define the excitement of this magical season.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit

Holiday Acts of Kindness