Q. I have four children ranging from 7 to 14. I have struggled with teaching generosity to each. Do you have any advice for developing a gift-giving guideline?
A. Developing a generous spirit in children is a process that can’t exactly be taught, but experienced. So much of becoming generous, appreciative, and respectful is how it is modeled and what is important to you. Are you generous (that doesn’t mean buying presents), grateful, appreciative, and respectful of your children and of others? If not, this is where to start. We think we can just tell our children to be grateful and to think more of others. We even try to demand it with yelling and disrespectful threats. It doesn’t work that way.
Children naturally love to give things to others and watch faces light up. It is quite empowering when children take an active role in giving. But don’t mistakenly expect that young children will naturally want to be generous with and considerate of others. That expectation will lead to anger and reprimands when you see natural egocentricity, and it seems that all they care about is what they get. That is generally how it is and when they are reprimanded for being egocentric, they tend to grab what they can get more than normal.
Think instead: Of course my child only cares about the presents he will get, the size of the piece of cake I give him, what is going to happen to him. Young children only have the capacity for empathy and consideration of others (which is in place by two) when everything is going their way. But if any stressor is present—if another child has something she wants—egocentricity takes over and her concern is for herself. All this means that the more she feels understood, gotten, supported and validated in her egocentric world, the sooner she will be able to reach out of her world to see and empathize with others.
When children are in their toddler and preschool years, it’s important, even though inconvenient, to take them with you when you shop, or include them in thinking about what you will be giving to people they know. Get them used to the idea that you are giving gifts to others as well as them. As they get older, get them involved in giving gifts to the other parent, siblings, and close relatives. These are either things you buy or things they can make. When they are old enough to have their own money (having an allowance is essential – see related article), encourage purchasing a small gift for those they care about the most.
To get kids in the mindset of gift giving this year, you might:
- Start with a family dessert time with cookies or cake or a special treat and make a list who you (as a family) are giving gifts to this year.
- Ask them for gift ideas.
- Ask who they each would like to give a gift to. Young children can draw pictures, make cards, put on a “show”.
- Ask if they have unwanted toys or clothes in good shape to give to needy children.
- Find out where there is a Secret Santa community “tree” of gift requests for children who otherwise won’t have any. Tell them you will pay for each of them to pick a request and get a gift.
- Find the time to take each to buy or order a gift—unless one will be made—for the other parent or a relative or friend. If old enough to do it themselves, ask about it.
- Take your kids with you to give a donation to a local food pantry. Hopefully at a time when they see people coming in for food. Discuss.
- Make sure they write thank-you notes to all outside the immediate family who give them gifts. Help with that process. They don’t have to like the gift to thank for the giving.
When your kids do give a gift, be sure and acknowledge it—and certainly take in the look on their faces when their gifts are received.