The image of children as egocentric “takers” has dominated the psychological landscape for half a century. Maybe it was a convenient excuse to lavish children with all the accoutrements of a happy childhood. Of course, happiness can’t be bought. And self-esteem is earned. Children are actually capable of enormous generosity, particularly when children understand the happiness the gift brings to others.
Early childhood researchers, like Alison Gopnik, now believe that acts of altruism occur regularly in children younger than 4 years. In Gopnik’s Berkeley study on empathy, children as young as 18 months distinguish another person’s preference for broccoli over their own preference for goldfish crackers and act to make the other person happy by giving the other person the food they like best regardless of the child’s personal preference. Sorry Jean Piaget – children think, feel and act differently than you ever imagined possible.
With this new information, parents are off the hook trying to feed the Gimme Monster. Parents can, and should, include young children in the magic of gift giving and bring extra peace-n-joy to this holiday season. These are extraordinary teachable moments for young children.
Anticipation is part of the excitement of December holidays. Planning who, what and where of holiday gift-giving teaches your child invaluable social, emotional and cognitive skills.
- Start planning together weeks before you need to start buying or making gifts. You want to cultivate purposeful thinking in your child – the ability to consider a goal and re-evaluate ideas over time.
- Make a holiday gift list of family, friends and acquaintances. Ask your child open-ended questions that help him to think about all the people he loves as well as the people he wants to thank. Too short or too long? You are there to help with practical considerations like money, time and distance. A hand-drawn thank you note or custom-made pictures are equally thoughtful, priceless and easy.
- Set aside calendar time for the entire gift-giving “process”. This means involving your child from beginning to end and not rushing through in the name of efficiency. The trip to the post office or the surprise delivery on the last day of school helps your child to focus on the feelings of the receiver, not just the giver.
Affordability and impulse control are difficult concepts for preschoolers. Young children might want to give everything from the moon to the fanciest sports car. The consumer world is filled with distractions and detours. Teach your child how to enjoy the distractions without getting thrown off course.
- Know where you’re going before you go looking for gifts, even if you have to physically scout the sales without your child. Then, lead your child-shopper to the right places – dollar stores, the box of golf balls with mojo or the gift card for a dad and daughter breakfast (wearing homemade dad and daughter t-shirts). Keep toy shopping separate from gift buying.
- Be realistic about shopping with young children. Keep it short and plan for your child’s optimal mood. Laugh at the crowds. Enjoy a hot chocolate break to enjoy the mall decorations. This is fun, not another chore.
- Wrap the gifts together, adding to the specialness of the giving.
- Talk about how the other person will feel when they open their gifts. Smiles, tears and silliness – help your child predict the effect of her gift-giving.
Children give of themselves when they make, draw, or decorate homemade gifts. Gift-making engages your child in thoughtful play with the symbols of the holiday season, creates memories that capture each age and stage of childhood and allows your child to actively participate in family traditions. Here are just a few links to fabulous kid-made gifts:
- holiday cards
- decorated picture frames
- handprint neckties
- homemade jewelry
- boxes of cookies
Your imagination is the only limit to finding a perfect gift.
A Holiday of Giving
Your child loves receiving gifts and no one should quiet the joyful squeals of children opening presents. The joy is even greater when your child knows she gave that same feeling to someone else. When you raise a child who is a “giver”, you raise a child who is powerful, capable, smart and loving. Happy Holiday Giving to one and all!