A decade ago, Sarah Aadland “felt a ton of pressure” to make Christmas magical for her two little girls. Today, she’s creating a different kind of magic for her family by focusing less on getting and more on giving as the way to true joy. As director of the Big-Hearted Families program of Doing Good Together, a Twin Cities nonprofit that promotes family volunteering, Aadland has gathered loads of research confirming that altruistic kids are happy kids. And what better time than December to practice? Aadland, now a 40-year-old mother of three, lives with her family on a hobby farm in Taylors Falls. She shares ideas for surviving the buying season, how to treat delivery people and why she’s a fan of “flipping it.”


Q: December is upon us. Is it normal for parents to feel a little … angst?

A: Angst is so true. No parent can get away from that feeling of wanting to create this month of perfect joy. It’s stressful for anybody.


Q: What do parents tell you they worry about most this season?

A: Entitlement and not wanting to raise kids who feel they’re owed. Also not wanting to go into credit card debt. A lot of parents really feel badly if they go overboard on the Santa gifts, especially around families who can’t afford that.


Q: What’s the antidote?

A: There’s no magic fix, but if you focus on giving, it can feel less overwhelming and more fulfilling. I come at it from the Doing Good Together angle. We’ve created a lot of rituals and traditions in our family around connection and caring instead of consumerism. We spend a lot of time flipping it.


Q: Flipping it?

A: The science shows that angst can go away if you shift things and focus on giving. We make two lists. One is our wish list, and I encourage my kids to make it long and remind them that they can’t possibly get everything on it. Then we make our giving list. On that list, we answer the question, “Who in your life do you want to take care of this month? Who do you know who could use a smile?” It’s an invitation to think about giving.


Q: How do you start that conversation? Won’t kids protest?

A: It’s so much easier than we think, mostly because kids love giving. They love the agency they feel when they’re the giver of the gift or the person helping out. They have all kinds of ideas. I think parents will laugh because it’s actually harder to get them to stop. It can be its own work.


Q: What kinds of things do your kids come up with when you flip it?

A: Baking yummy treats to share, making homemade presents for each other, creating a thank-you station with candy to set outside for all the delivery guys. They’re at our door all the time.


Q: Nice idea. But do you talk to your kids about buying locally as well?

A: We do have a local teeny bookstore in Cambridge, Minn., and we go there every chance we get. We buy local honey, local syrup. They are aware of that difference. What I tell them is that these are the businesses that support your local school. I think that’s a good conversation to have with kids.


Q: What holiday buying trends are you seeing among parents at Doing Good Together events?

A: I love how creative parents are getting. They’ll have their kids write down “one thing you want and one thing you need.” They’re doing more event- and date night-centered holidays gifts like theater tickets, movies, restaurant gift cards.


Q: What about our carbon footprint? How can we have fun without creating so much landfill trash?

A: It’s hard. I do have to just overlook it with relatives. I can’t control what other people are doing or buying. But in our house, we use gift bags and reuse them. Fabric is an investment, but it also would be a good method for reusable wrapping paper.

Q: What does your research tell you about kids and gratitude?

A: The research surprised me a little bit but in fact 100% of the time, gratitude benefits the giver. When you volunteer, your stress hormones go down and your happy hormones go up. Active gratitude, in which you notice something good and attribute it to the source, makes you more likely to share kindness and help others. It’s a pretty profound lesson in why we should be focusing our families on that.


Q: I’m a stickler for thank you notes. Where are you on that?

A: I hate letting it go, especially when someone cares about you enough to give you a gift. But the concentration of gifts during the holidays makes it hard. So we do video thank yous. My kids know that they can’t use their gift until they are ready to say their video thank you. We record them opening the gift and send it to the giver. Also as part of our gratitude practice, I’m trying to get the kids to send a thank you for a game or toy they’re still using, even if it’s a few years later. People never expect that.


Q: Might you share a few of your favorite resources?

A: The Doing Good Together website of course (doinggoodtogether.org). But I think books help parents more than anything. It really does open up the conversation. I’d recommend “The Quiltmaker’s Gift,” by Jeff Brumbeau, “The Trees of the Dancing Goats,” by Patricia Polacco, and “What is Given from the Heart,” by Patricia McKissack. The message of the last one is that everybody has something to give. That’s a message we need to keep going over with our kids.