For most of us holidays are times of joy and celebration, of family gatherings and too much food, of songs and parties and gifts. But holidays also provide many of the best teaching opportunities for parents of the entire year.

Part of the challenge of raising ethical children is to keep your eyes open for the everyday teachable moments that are all around. This is particularly true at this season of the year, when even the hardest of hearts among us is inevitably confronted with the message of “peace on earth, good will to all” practically everywhere we go.

It is also a time when your children are inundated with sales pitches from every TV screen, movie theater, radio program and catalog that comes unbidden into your mailbox and into your home. They are urged, cajoled, enticed and sung to about every new toy, game, electronic wonder and gadget that our creative and dynamic economic market has just spent the entire year since the last holiday season creating.

Parents often come to me asking how they can best cope with the over-commercialization and incredible sense of self-indulgence that this season seems to encourage in their kids. I know that they aren’t alone. Many parents wonder how they can encourage moral growth and development in the midst of the one season in the year that seems to be so oriented toward what our kids will get, that they often find it hard to keep in perspective the importance of giving as well.

I love this time of year. It always seems to me to be filled with more opportunities for ethical behavior and character building than any other season. Raising children of character requires that parents simply pay attention to the opportunities that surround them and take the time to demonstrate the values that they feel are important to teach.

Teach your kids the power of giving. Teach them that it can transform both the lives of the receiver and the giver. If you choose that as a personal ethical parenting goal, then this is the perfect time to put into practice one of the important keys to character building that I championed in my book, Children of Character (Canter & Assoc. 1997), namely make ethical behavior a family affair.

Los Angeles is filled with opportunities for giving. From making dinner together as a family at a local homeless shelter to participating in the annual holiday Toys for Tots program that our local police and fire departments sponsor each year to personal projects of your own creation. When our daughter was young, we would gather a bunch of small toys together each year to give away. Since we are Jewish and don’t celebrate Christmas in our home, we would go out each Christmas eve to local hospitals and deliver the gifts to children who were unfortunate enough to be stuck in a hospital bed for the holiday. Those experiences will stay with our daughter forever.

I urge you this year to create your own “_____ Family Holiday Project.” Sit down with your kids and talk about what the holiday season means to you. Watch the newspapers and TV news programs for stories about others less fortunate than you and together come up with something that you can do to help. I know one family who created their own holiday project which they called, “The Auerbach Family Santa Project.” It’s such a great idea, that I’d love every family to create their own version of it.

Every year before Christmas the Auerbachs contact the post office and inquire about the many letters that kids send to Santa which go unanswered. The post office is actually very happy to help with this project, and after making sure that the Auerbachs were safe and sincere in their intentions, shared several of the kid’s letters with them. They read the letters as a family and pick at least two of the kids to answer. The “answer” comes in the form of a surprise visit to those children at their homes on Christmas day. They bring small gifts to brighten their holiday season, and depending on the specific requests that they had written in their letters to Santa, the Auerbachs are often able to bring them exactly what they asked for. Imagine the joy of those children and imagine the thrill and fulfillment that the Auerbach children feel in being part of making miracles for others.

We live in such a consumer-centered society and most of our kids have everything they will ever need and more. The most common complaint from the parents I know is that their kids get so many things for holidays and birthdays that they simply don’t appreciate any of it anymore. They suffer from a consumer disease called “merchandise overload” where the simple pleasure and excitement of waiting and dreaming of something for a long time before finally getting it is rarely felt.

The antidote to this unhealthy lack of appreciation for life and its blessings is for parents to create the opportunities for their children to really know through first-hand experience how fortunate they are. One of the greatest gifts you can give your kids this holiday season isn’t found in their favorite mall and you can’t buy it on TV. It is the realization that the most important things in life aren’t things at all - they are the relationships we have with people we love and who love us.

And beyond this understanding of where the most precious gifts in our lives really come from is the gift you can give of an attitude of appreciation for the everyday miracles that surround us. Teach your kids to wake up and say “Thank you for another day filled will endless possibilities.” Teach them to sit at every meal and say “Thank you for the blessing of this food which took untold numbers of people to grow, harvest, transport, manufacture, process, create and deliver to my local store and eventually here into my own home.” Give them the gift this holiday season of an attitude of gratitude and it will truly be a gift that keeps on giving throughout the year and throughout their lives.