The holiday season is upon us. Tis the season for joy and giving… and the perennial "I want" monster. Kids, young and older, tend to ramp up their requests for toys, treats and all manner of "stuff" this time of year. Of course, it's not surprising given the onslaught of ads, promotions and sales that they see on every screen or media outlet this season—however, as parents, the constant barrage of requests can be overwhelming.
Sure, we want our kids to have nice gifts, but we may fear in the back of our minds that we are raising kids who are too spoiled or not grateful enough.
How do we balance this desire to gift while still fostering a sense of meaning and gratitude during this season? Here are some tips.
1. Help kids focus on the abundance in their lives.
In our culture, it's easy to focus on the things we don't have. Social comparison is probably at the highest it's ever been thanks, in part, to social media posts. In past generations, comparison was maybe only with our neighbors or classmates. Now social comparison has no boundaries with pictures of friends' vacations and cars being posted on social media daily from all parts of the world. Even if our kids are not on social media, they still experience the comparison pressure.
A meaningful way to combat this pressure is the same way people have been doing it for centuries: by practicing gratitude. This old quote is as true today as ever, "Gratitude turns what we have into enough." Helping kids focus on the good things in their lives can be simple but effective in keeping the attention off of requests. Additionally, it can help us adults be intentional about our focus as well.
For young children, focusing on gratitude can be as easy as finding a joyful aspect of each day when you are sitting around the dinner table. Even on the hardest day, there is usually some little thing for which to be grateful.
If you want to get a little more creative, something like a "reverse" bucket list can be fun. Instead of making a list of all the things kids want to do (or purchase), you focus on the things you've done that have brought joy to your family. Contentment and gratitude become of the center of the conversation instead of "I want." You can also do a reverse advent calendar, where your family does one positive thing a day (donating goods to a shelter, sending Grandma a card, etc.).
2. Help them see outside themselves (and their situation).
Young children are inherently self-centered, but it's no fault of your parenting or your child, it's simply brain immaturity. Before the age of about four, their brains have limited skill in understanding the feelings and mind of another person.
That being said, as kids mature, you can help them understand the world around them and people who live in different circumstances than their own. Many of us grew up in the generation where our parents told us to clean our plates because "there are children starving out there." Perhaps well-meaning, this guilt-inducing approach to understanding poverty may not always have the results we want.
Instead, kids might respond better to having authentic interactions with fellow residents that live different experiences than their own. Perhaps there are residents in your town who really need extra support, like refugees or underemployed individuals who you can reach out to through a local charity.
Many church or community groups know of families that need "adopting" for whom you can provide gifts and food. If you are able to actually meet the family in person or at least learn their names, this can make the giving much more meaningful for kids.
Trying to authentically engage with people that are different from our typical neighbors also raises many questions and topics for conversation with kids. Serving a meal at a homeless shelter may prompt an in-depth discussion of poverty and its causes.
These conversations can be challenging for parents, but are often necessary to help kids really understand others. By opening their eyes to the needs of others, kids gain a whole new perspective on their own wants and needs.
3. Guide them through uncomfortable feelings.
Part of the pressure in the season of "I want" is dealing with kids' uncomfortable feelings when the inevitable let-down occurs. No matter how many gifts or experiences you offer, no parent can provide everything. Kids will inevitably experience disappointment in some form or fashion. It turns out, this is actually a good thing.
In coping with the small disappointments and stresses of life, kids can actually grow in empathy and emotional maturity. The key for parents is to guide them through the uncomfortable feelings instead of trying to make them disappear.
When your child feels sad or disappointed about something (not getting the gift of their choosing, for example), instead of trying to distract them with an activity, allow them to feel those uncomfortable emotions long enough to really process them.
Allowing this emotional space is what builds resilience over the long term. You can offer emotional support and listen, but try not to rush them "back to happy" too soon. Once they calm down, you might offer some insights into how those emotions relate to other kids who are struggling or disappointed. In this simple act of emotional support, you've just helped your child build emotional intelligence and empathy for others who experience disappointment. Now that's the best gift you can provide for your child!
4. Model gratitude and kindness.
As much as we want our kids to focus on gratitude and giving instead of receiving, it is often a challenge for us to not get immersed in consumerism this time of year. The culture of purchasing this time of year is overwhelming. Even if we are mostly buying gifts for others, it can be challenging not to get caught up in the "fear of missing out" feeling when it comes to finding the best deal or coolest gift.
Unfortunately, our kids might pick up on this "fear of missing out" feeling too. Once they reach school age, kids often compare wish lists or holiday outings their family has experienced. As with most things parenting-related, we really have to practice what we preach when it comes to fostering gratitude.
We can model these values by showing our appreciation to store clerks, wait staff or others who have to work during holiday times. Kids are always watching and these little acts of kindness can make a big impression.
Modeling kindness is, of course, a year-round goal but this time of year we can help our kids show gratitude in special ways to those around them. Perhaps kids can show gratitude for those they interact with like teachers, bus drivers, or grandparents by making cards or special treats. Make a list together of who you want to thank.
The holiday season doesn't have to be filled with the dread of constant requests and wish lists from the kids. By changing our attention, we can use this season as a time for emotional growth and lessons in gratitude.