Q: My husband lost his job five months ago, and money has been really tight. We're agonizing about Christmas. Our kids understand the situation, but I know their friends will all be getting the latest toys, games, etc. I'm dreading seeing their disappointed faces on Christmas morning. What can we do?

Jim: My heart goes out to your family. It's always hard to deal with financial challenges, but somehow they seem worse this time of year. That said, you might be surprised by what your children really want from you for Christmas.

A few years ago, a viral Internet video showed 10 families who were asked to participate in a simple experiment. The children -- ages 4 to 9 -- were asked to write a letter to Santa, listing what they wanted from him for Christmas. Not surprisingly, the kids were excited and had plenty of ideas, asking for everything from video games to musical instruments. One little girl even asked for a unicorn.

But then the children were asked to write another letter, this one to their parents. The task was the same -- list the things they wanted from Mom and Dad for Christmas. This time the kids were more quiet and thoughtful, and their requests were quite different. "Play with me more," one said. "Have dinner with us," said another. And on it went: "Spend a whole day with me." "Read us a story." "Tickle me."

Children love to get presents at Christmas. And we Moms and Dads love to give our children gifts. But as much as our kids may want that new video game -- or even a unicorn -- what they really want is time with us. As one of the parents in the video said, "Imagine! You want to give your kids the best you can. And the best is yourself!"

Many parents simply don't have the money to buy their children the latest toys and electronic gadgets. The good news is that to make a child's upbringing rich and meaningful, none of those are necessary. A little thought and creativity can go a long way.

So what I would suggest is that when your children open their (simple) gifts this Christmas, they find a wide range of personalized coupons for various times and activities with Mom and Dad. An afternoon at the park. Playing catch in the backyard. A game night at home. Make coupons that your kids can "redeem" at times of their choosing throughout the year, as well as planned events on specific dates.

Most communities have a number of fun opportunities to choose from. You can take advantage of museums, science centers and zoos in your area, most of which offer low-cost or free children's programs. (They generally advertise special days well in advance, so you can plan your schedule and coupons.) Many universities offer classical or children's concerts and Saturday morning theater productions for kids.

Every few weeks, go to the public library together. Check out books and DVDs that will introduce all of you to people and places you've never dreamed of before, and explore on a rainy or snowy day.

Try giving your children simple (or elaborate!) coupons for designated activities like these, as well as generic times like "an uninterrupted hour with Dad" or "baking with Mom."

You may have to get creative, but take heart! The happiest, most well-adjusted children are not those with every new toy that hits the stores. The kids who thrive best have committed, caring parents who take a genuine interest in their lives. So this Christmas, and throughout this next year, give your children the best gift of all -- you!

For more encouragement to make this season meaningful, visit FocusOnTheFamily.com.

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