12/23/2011 09:02 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2012

All I Need for Christmas...

I have a love/hate relationship with Christmas.

I love Christmas for the rampant good cheer, the food, the family, the presents and the evergreen wreaths. I decorate the house the day after Thanksgiving and don't take anything down until New Year's Day. I adhere to this schedule even in years when our tree has turned into a fire hazard and the floor is littered with pine needles. (This is one of the many reasons I should invest in an artificial tree, but I can't bring myself to do it.) This is, hands down, my favorite time of year.

At the same time, I hate Christmas because there seems to be no sense of proportion to the holiday. Stores around the country open the day after Halloween fully stocked with holiday merchandise. I have to resist the urge to duck and cover when the latest round of catalogs crashes through the mail slot. Black Friday starts at midnight? What the hell is Cyber Monday? I don't need a two-month, 24/7 onslaught of advertising and super sales to remind me that people are expecting a little something on Christmas morning.

That build-up to Christmas chips away at what may be the most important lesson my husband and I try to teach our kids -- the difference between what they "need" and what they "want." Really, the person who might need that lesson most isn't either of our boys. It's me.

During the year, my husband and I spend a lot of time talking to both our teenager and our preschooler about wants vs. needs. We explain to our older son why spending $200 for a pair of shoes is obscene (we think). If they say things like, "Everyone else has [insert desired thingy here]!" and "This is so unfair!" we play deaf. Our hearts are stone. We tell our little guy that he does not need a fifth garbage truck. (How we got to four is still a mystery.) We ignore his tantrums and tears.

It's not that I don't want to spoil our children on occasion. I just don't want to raise spoiled kids.

This year, our boys seem to have gotten the message. The teenager has asked for a fairly reasonable list of gifts, which, thankfully, doesn't include anything seen on MTV's "Cribs". The preschooler is hoping for an ambulance and Play-doh's "Dr. Drill and Fill" (I think the disembodied head is a little disturbing, but I know our dentist will be thrilled). In fact, my little guy solemnly told me that Santa doesn't like it when kids ask for too much, so we should take something off his brother's list. I'm sure his big brother is going to be psyched when he hears that.

I don't know if I can take all the credit for this new-found austerity -- I may have the Berenstain Bears to thank for this particular life lesson - but I'll take what I can get.

So, I'm feeling good about the kids right about now.

I'm not so sure about myself. It's the season when discussions about excessive consumption are probably the most important, but I long to throw our year-long mantra out the window and pile brightly-wrapped presents under the tree. My desire is only magnified by the boys' modest wish lists. I want to reward them. I want to give them more because they asked for less. I've been preaching to them all year long about needs and now I want to shower them with wants.

This is not a good strategy.

I've been so focused on teaching my kids lessons, I've failed to learn them myself. Being a good mom doesn't mean buying things (although that is fun and there will be presents under our tree),. As a parent, I love to see my kids happy, but their happiness isn't measured by their glee on Christmas morning. Yes, I want them to have Christmas memories filled with sparkly paper and surprises and joy. I want to be the reformed Grinch thundering down from the top of Mt. Crumpit with a sleigh full of gifts. I want Christmas magic. But, that's my "want" - that they look back on these years with a sense of fun and exhilaration.

It seems I've lost sight of what a parent really needs.

Instead of giving my four-year old one more thing he can play with, I need to get down on the floor and play with him. I am not required to get my teenager the coolest electronic gadget, but I do need to put down my phone, close my computer and listen when he's talking to me. I need to make sure they are healthy, safe and loved. I need to help them learn to be happy (which is not the same as being overindulged). I can't do any of that with my credit card.

It seems I need to pay more attention to what triggered the Grinch's change of heart instead of focusing on the sleigh of gifts. "Maybe Christmas, the Grinch thought, doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more." Sometimes the green monsters in stories get it right.

So it isn't just kids we should to talk to about needs versus wants. Before we buy the next present, we should remind ourselves too.