’Tis the Season for Parenting Guilt (But It Doesn’t Have to Be!) 

Heather Brower • 15 minutes

Do you ever get that nagging feeling that you’re forgetting something, but you don’t know what it is? Then you check your inbox. Three missed emails about extra rehearsals and costume requirements for the Christmas show at school. Two about a holiday party for the 3rd grade (you signed up to bring a dozen cookies—and you forgot to send them in). Missed a few about a food drive where each student is expected to go door-to-door asking for donations of canned goods. And that’s not including the text thread you haven’t chimed in on yet about when and where your extended family is getting together this year. Mom or dad of the year? Not this time. Hello, parenting guilt. It’s been a few minutes since you last checked in with me. Cue the heartburn and tight shoulders. 

And—hey there, parents who are raising kids with disabilities and special needs of all sorts. I see you, too. How fun is it when you have to decline a party invitation because your child can’t skip physical therapy? Or, isn’t it a blast when you can’t attend parties at all because of the sensory overload they cause your child? Don’t forget the logistical nightmare of hoping your child’s special dietary needs are covered for the nearly endless parties this month. And let’s just spice it all up with increased anxiety for some of our kids due to the nearly constant schedule changes from all these extra parties, assemblies, rehearsals, and shows. Ho, ho, ho! Fun times. 

Can someone fill me in on just how many “magical” memories I’m supposed to be filling my family’s hearts with—and when I’m supposed to find the time to create them? Do Christmas cookies count as a nutritious dinner? Have I balanced gift-giving with gift-receiving? Have I wrapped my gifts in a Pinterest-worthy fashion? Did I remember to get a gift for everyone? (Side question: Do I have to get a gift for every therapist my child sees?) And speaking of gifts, have I taught my kids to appreciate this holy time of year, or are we just another group of present-hungry, cookie-chowing bums who’d rather sing about Rudolph than Emmanuel? It’s the most wonderful time of the year, eh? 

Okay, enough sarcasm. It can feel great to let off some steam—but if we’re going to tackle the parenting guilt that seems to intensify itself every year around the holidays, then we need to put joking aside, deal with the feelings, create a strategy so we’ll accomplish what we decide is important for our family, and choose to live a life of peace and joy, no matter our circumstances. 

Stop letting expectations of perfection ruin the true beauty of your life. 

Let’s tackle a few of the myths we parents feel are truths. And let’s stop letting expectations of perfection ruin the true beauty of our lives. Let the guilt that breathes down your neck slide right off your back. Where is that guilt coming from, anyway? God isn’t reaching down to earth to whisper to your heart, “You have to bring home-baked cookies to your kid’s school party or I’ll be so disappointed in your celebration of My Son’s birth.” Of course He’s not. And if that parenting guilt isn’t coming from our loving heavenly Father, then it’s not meant to be a part of our lives. 

8 Pieces of Parenting Guilt to Remove from Your Life This Holiday Season: 

1. Guilt because “I need the perfect gifts so my kids will feel loved and/or provided for.” All right, Mom or Dad. This guilt is one you can put away because it’s built on a lie you’re believing. The lie says, “Kids need things to feel loved.” False. Kids need love to feel loved. Of course they do need food, clothing, and shelter, too. So, if you’re struggling to meet those needs, then it’s time to reach out for help! Your church family will be happy to come alongside you and help you achieve job skills or even help you rework your budget so you can feed and clothe your family. Anything on top of that is frosting on the cake. A new toy or electronic device won’t solidify your child’s love for you—or convince them of your love. Time spent with you will. Hugs from you will. Kind and encouraging words from you will. Help from you when they need it will. And a mostly free handmade gift from you will demonstrate your love every bit as much as an expensive store-bought one. 

Try this experiment if you don’t believe me. Spend a moment in reflection. Ask yourself this question: How do I know my parents loved me? I’m willing to wager your answer won’t have anything to do with a gift you received for Christmas. And—even if a gift you received does come to mind—I bet it’s more the thought they put into the gift that left a lasting impression on you. Give yourself a budget and stick to it. Even if your budget is $0, with a little thought, you’ll find a way to offer something to your child that will show them how much you cherish them. 

2. Guilt because “My child can’t participate in holiday events like other kids can.” Families with disabilities and various special needs, this one’s for you. I’ve been with you in this particular shade of guilt. I’ve had to just decline parties because I knew my son would wreak havoc on a person’s home. Or because he would be too wound up to handle. Or overloaded. Or ruin his dietary needs. It’s not our fault as parents, but we still find a way to feel like it is. Maybe I should’ve done XYZ therapy—then events like this would be great. Garbage. Throw this out of your heart. This simply isn’t yours to own. This is you looking out for your child’s well-being. Instead of feeling guilty that you don’t know how to help your child overcome a particular social challenge, be thankful that God gave you wisdom and insight into your child. He’s helping you see that some things just aren’t going to be fun or even good for your child. Rest in that, and move away from guilt. 

3. Guilt because “I’m not giving my family as good of a Christmas as ______ gives their family.” Ugh. Comparison is the quickest thief of joy. Set this as a recurring reminder on your phone: My family’s Christmas is as good as I believe it is. So the Joneses are getting their kids matching snowmobiles for Christmas and you’re getting your kids matching mittens. Are the Joneses going out with their kids to build a snow fort like you are? Or for a walk through your town to look at lights like you do? Or do they have traditions your family does that don’t revolve around gifts? 

Here’s the answer you were hoping I wouldn’t say: The Joneses might actually have most of their act together. Maybe they have money for elaborate gifts and hearts that are full of gratitude. Maybe they’re actually making tons of happy memories because they have more free time this year. Guess what? That’s not supposed to cause you pain. Part of being a follower of Christ means getting rid of envy. It means being happy for one another. It means choosing to be happy when you’re following Christ, not when you’re somehow “doing better” than your neighbor. And it certainly doesn’t mean feeling guilty because your gift count is lower than your neighbor’s. Choose to believe your Christmas is good because of the time you’ll spend together worshiping Jesus and enjoying one another. Once you believe it, the guilt will disappear. The comparison will end. And the real joy God wants you to experience this year will flourish. 

4. Guilt because “I can’t afford gifts for every teacher, mentor, and helper my child has.” Okay, who said we have to buy a gift for our kids’ teachers? And do we really believe our kids’ teachers are wringing their hands, hoping they’ll get another bottle of lotion or scented candle this year? If you can afford to lavish your child’s teachers with gift cards and spa treatments, then—by all means—do it! The rest of us will be grateful that someone did. But guilt over not having money to buy for everyone you love? Bye-bye! Not from God. And not for you! 

I remember one year, I had two classroom teachers, three classroom aides, one Occupational Therapist, one Speech Therapist, one Behavioral Therapist, and one Special Education teacher in my children’s lives. Some of you with more kids than me have counts even higher! I decided pretty quickly that homemade peppermint bark and a heartfelt card for each was the way to go. The adults who are in your children’s lives absolutely cherish your words of encouragement and thanks. Try offering gifts of kind words this year and leave guilt behind! 

5. Guilt because “I don’t know how to create ‘magical moments.’” Thanks, Pinterest. We used to make Swiss Miss cocoa, snuggle in for a TV special and call it a “magical Christmas-themed evening.” Now, we have to buy the finest fair-trade organic cocoa beans, grind them ourselves, wear matching red-and-green outfits fresh from Etsy, and sit for the perfect photo for your Instagram story. Somehow, it feels like we’re working so hard to make things look magical that we end up with nothing that feels magical. 

You know what the magic of Christmas really is? It’s remembering that there was a time when God, the eternal and almighty Creator of the Universe, actually came to Earth—get this—in the form of a human being. He breathed the air we breathe. He touched the dust we touch. He was fully God and fully human at the same time. When we see evidence of God at work on Earth, that’s what I call magic. Real magic! 

When you see your child being selfless, worshiping God, or loving like Jesus, you will never forget that magic. Because magical moments have nothing to do with appearances. 

And you can see it this Christmas! (Spoiler alert: You can see it when it’s not Christmas, too.) Find a way for your family to worship God together. Find a way for your family to serve others together. Find a way for your family to support someone else somehow. Get creative! You don’t have to spend a dime. You might have to spend some time, though. But when you see your child being selfless, worshiping God, or living in a way that displays the love of Jesus, you will never forget that magic. You will never feel a moment of guilt from it. And you’ll truly understand that “magical moments” have nothing to do with appearances. 

6. Guilt because “I just spent more money than I meant to.” Yeah. So … you missed points 1 and 3. You already blew your budget right out the window. You might’ve felt a million reasons to splurge this year. But splurging beyond your means? That’s a recipe for guilt. Guess what? Your kids will pick up on it—and you’ll spread the guilt from your heart to theirs. Not so merry. Guess what else? This is an example of a time when the guilt you feel is actually a legitimate checkpoint for you to take note of. Sometimes guilt is completely unwarranted and you can ignore it. But other times, guilt is meant to lead you away from a regrettable situation. You’re feeling guilty because you can’t buy your kid everything? Chuck that guilt. Guilty because you lost control and blew your budget? Take note—and heed its warning. (Sidebar: Never let guilt lead you to shame. That’s guilt’s favorite next step, and that’s a whole topic in and of itself!) 

Okay, here’s what you do. You make some returns. You can do it! No one’s unwrapped a thing yet. Take. Stuff. Back. You’ll feel so much lighter! You won’t be harnessed by the lie that your kids need more things. Your kids won’t be harnessed by your anxiety over every penny spent in the months after Christmas. Take stuff back! Take stuff back! Chant this in your mind while you drive to the store. Enjoy your holidays without the guilt of overspending! 

7. Guilt because “I’m just not feeling the holiday spirit this year.” Ugh. You usually enjoy the tinsel and lights. You usually want to bake something delicious. You usually look forward to the carols and pageants. But not this year. This year, it all feels too much. Or it all feels kind of like nothing. And that makes you feel guilty. You’re the parent! You’re supposed to be the king or queen of Christmas hype, leading your family to a glee-filled Christmas morning. 

First, you’re not alone. Talk to someone about this. Maybe you’re going through something physically. Could it be you need to visit your doctor and check to see if anything needs an adjustment? How are you sleeping? Do you need to slow down so your body can get more real rest? Maybe you’re going through something spiritually. Could it be you need to find a new Bible Plan to read this season? Or to find a way to reach out and serve your community? Do you need to reach out for prayer? Maybe you’re going through something in your thought life. How can you begin to renew your mind? Could spending time in meditation help you to allow these feelings of “blah” to pass so you can focus on gratitude instead? 

Don’t let guilt compound your lowered mood this year. That guilt is not coming from God. He is your Creator. He knows the complex reasons why you’re struggling to find joy this year. And He can help you find and receive healing for your body, mind, and spirit so that you can truly begin to find that deep sense of gratitude, peace, and joy you’ve been missing. 

8. Guilt because “I don’t know how to get my kids to love Jesus more than presents.” Okay, I saved the one I think is the heaviest for last. This kind of guilt is something we parents tend to over-own. I mean, we’re the primary ones entrusted to start our children off on their path of godly living. If they’re making a mistake or heading away from God, we always feel like it’s because of something we did. Like it’s somehow our fault that they’re human and are tempted by the same kinds of greed, selfishness, or any other variety of godlessness that we ourselves are tempted by! We own the guilt they should feel over their own wrong choices. (Again, the good kind of guilt that leads to a course correction, not the bad kind of guilt that appears for no reason or hangs around until it turns into shame.)

So, what can we do when we’re worried our kids are missing out on the true beauty, the true magic of Christmas? Well, as they say, attitudes are more caught than taught. We can monitor our own words and actions. Are we talking to our kids more about “What do you want for Christmas?” than, “What can we give this Christmas?” Are we telling our kids how excited we are to attend church for Christmas this year? Are we sharing our favorite carols and explaining their meaning? Are we excited to serve our community? And are we modeling this kind of behavior and attitude even when it’s not the Christmas season? 

Your kids might look like angels to you—but I assure you—they’re human. And they’re learning! They might not be at an age where they’re developmentally able to truly appreciate all the spiritual implications Christmas holds. But as they watch you, and as you develop traditions that center around remembering the beauty that Christ came to be with us because of His great love for us, you may find your kids are able to express their worship and thanks to God a bit more each year. And if not, it is not yours to own! Praise God anyway. 

Bottom line: Guilt is not an effective emotion to hang around with. It causes paralysis. It robs joy. It demotivates. It can turn into shame. And it doesn’t belong in the heart of a child of God. God forgives us of every sinful thought or deed we confess to Him! He will lead you to the people and places that will help you and your family thrive. He is offering you freedom from guilt. You can walk in that freedom starting this very moment. Slow breath in. Slow breath out. God is with you. That’s the message of this season! 

He loved you enough to come to Earth to live a sinless life and take the punishment for your sins. He took the guilt so you don’t have to live in it! What joy! This season, worship your good Father because with His help, you can absolutely nail this parenting thing! Focus on Him, and watch the guilt disappear. Focus on Him, and watch the joy and “magic” begin to fill you and your family!