How to Give the Gift of Giving

For many of us, this time of year focuses us on generating gift lists, often with a major emphasis on finding the perfect gifts for children for them to enjoy and appreciate.

And the excitement and tempting begins…

Excited children can circle the items they want from the latest Toys “R” Us catalog. On TV, commercials tempt requests for a variety of toys, many of which parents know will quickly end up at the bottom of the toy chest as no longer fun to play with. Nonetheless, children often plead with their parents to have the latest and greatest toy.

Sometimes the gifts prove to become favorites, played with often, and parents can be relieved to know their money was well spent. But no matter what, parents usually enjoy the whole process of selecting and buying gifts for their children.

Are you asking the right question?

I have been thinking about how often at this time of year, children are asked, “What do you want for Christmas?” (or Hanukkah or any other holiday in which gifts are exchanged). It can seem like an innocuous question, but I think it’s worthwhile for parents to note that the implicit emphasis is on being the recipient of gift-giving. Seldom do people ask children, “What gifts are you planning on giving to people in your family or to your friends?”  Maybe that is a question we as parents should be asking our children.

There is some science behind this suggestion.

There is a lot of research demonstrating that being altruistic contributes to mental and physical health benefits. For example, you can read more in an article entitled Altruism, Happiness, and Health: It’s Good to Be Good published by the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

It turns out that children as young as four years old can experience physiological benefits from being altruistic.

Think about the Christmas carol “The Little Drummer Boy” and the description of how this child had no gift to bring that was fit to lay before the King. I remember the first time I heard it as a young child and realized the message that even a child can give something of worth. Gestures of kindness and caring are intangible presents that often offer so much more than anything tangible.

Parents have many opportunities in this season of gift-giving to encourage their children to appreciate that they have the ability to give to others.

Here are some specific suggestions:

  • Remember how important it is to model attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Parents can intentionally describe their own gift giving, sharing with their children how carefully they think about the recipient of the gift and then take the time to find something meaningful for that person. They can share how much they love the feeling of giving.
  • Read stories or watch movies in which the joys of being the giver of gifts are emphasized.
  • One of my favorites is the O Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi.” -a black-and-white classic.
  • Another classic is Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol with many movie versions available as well as books, including a Disney version.
  • The movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” ends with a whole community rallying to give to George Bailey to save him from financial ruin.
  • Dr. Seuss’, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas offers a strong moral lesson of the joys of coming together sharing love versus focusing on material gifts.
  • Invite even young children to make lists of the people to whom they would like to give gifts and help them come up with ideas for things they could create or even ways they could provide some kind of loving service. Parents can write down gifts of service on pieces of colorful paper and place them in some kind of pretty container that a child could wrap and then delight in giving.

This is the season when parents have many wonderful opportunities to promote altruism in their children. Taking the time to invite children to access the power they have to give joy to others nurtures their innate abilities to be generous and actually promotes healthy brain growth. Giving children the gift of giving is a gift that will last a lifetime!

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Reflect on a time when you were a child and gave a gift to a family member or friend. How did it make you feel to be able to give something to someone else?
  2. What plans can you make to nurture and teach your children the joys of giving to others? What books or videos can you show and discuss with them? What kinds of gifts can you help them buy or make for others?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network

Note: If you want some interesting international research on altruism, check out the following November 29, 2016 Psychology Today article entitled “How Parents Raise Children to Fit in: Comparing Kids in Different Societies Finds Links between Parenting Outcomes” by Dr. Nigel Barber.