In so very many ways, the holidays seem designed to bring out the absolute worst in young kids.
They’re off their routines. They’re loaded up with sugar. And they’re likely getting presents, often while friends and family they don’t necessarily see all that often or know especially well look on in breathless expectation. It’s a lot to process.
With a few days to go before Hanukkah and Christmas, here’s how to teach your kids to be polite, adept gift receivers — and hopefully avoid a holiday meltdown or two.
Practice ahead of time
“What it means to be a gracious gift receiver is simply to show appreciation,” Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert who runs the Protocol School of Texas, told HuffPost. “So your job as a parent is to prepare them in advance.”
Don’t attempt to give them some long script, Gottsman says (and she has seen parents do it). Nor should you teach them that they have to act as though they absolutely love everything they receive. Finally, don’t force kids to give hugs or kisses. They never owe anyone physical affection as a thank-you — even during the holidays.
“Tell them they have to smile and say ‘thank you,’” Gottsman said. “That’s it.”
That sounds simple — obvious, even — but it is important to practice ahead of time. Tell your kids that sometimes they’ll get gifts they love, and other times they’ll open gifts they feel kinda meh about. Explain that what matters is that they are kind to the person who gave them the present, which is achieved by simply smiling and saying “thanks.”
Have them help you with a donation or shopping for others
If your family is in a position to, consider donating to a charity that gives children gifts around the holidays, or ask your kids to be a part of buying for other friends and family on your list. You’re not just modeling kindness and charity; you’re helping them understand firsthand that when someone gives them a gift, they’re putting in time, effort and thought.
“Shopping for others is a way for them to understand the thought, budgeting and effort that goes into gift-giving, and may have some more impact when they open gifts,” Kerry Maunus, co-founder of “Turkey on the Table” — a book and activity kit aimed at promoting gratitude — told HuffPost.
When they inevitably start going bonkers, help them voice their feelings
The holidays really do often put kids in situations that are tricky for where they are at developmentally. It’s hard to sit still and wait for other family members to open their own presents. It’s hard not to want to tear through all of their presents at once — again, especially if they’ve gotten a bit less sleep than they’re used to, and had a few more treats than they normally would.
“If your child is having trouble with waiting, recognize their feelings first. Say, ‘You seem really excited about the holidays. It’s hard to wait, isn’t it?’” says parenting educator Julie Ross, author of “Practical Parenting for the 21st Century,” in a post on her website about taming the holiday “gimmees.” “Sometimes children continue misbehavior in an effort to make us understand their feelings. When we recognize their feelings, we are, in effect, saying, ‘I understand how you feel,’ and many times this in itself will stop the misbehavior.”
It’s also helpful, Ross notes, for parents to reframe how they see this behavior themselves. Instead of thinking that your kid is being greedy, remind yourself that they are really just excited.
“Most parents have an easier time handling an overly excited child than a ‘greedy’ one,” Ross says.
Keep your own expectations in check
Kids can be taught to behave politely (again in this case, smiling and saying “thank you”) but developmental experts say they don’t actually have the skills to fully grasp what gratitude means and how it feels until they’re closer to 8, 9, 10... and older. That’s OK. Until they’re a bit older, they can’t understand the situation from the gift giver’s point of view, which is a big part of gratitude.
“Perspective-taking is a learned skill, well into the elementary school years and beyond,” Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University and a Chicago-based clinical psychologist, previously told HuffPost. When they’re young, he said, “they’re simply not at the point where their cognitive development allows them to understand what the experience is like for another person.”
So keep your children’s age and development in mind before you start panicking that you’re raising a spoiled monster. Also, even if you do a great job teaching your kids some basic manners, prepping them and trying to lay the groundwork for genuine gratitude, kids are savagely honest. Sometimes they’ll open a present and make it clear that it’s not their favorite, or that they already have it.
“They should know that there are expectations for their behavior,” Gottsman said of teaching young children to be gracious gift receivers, “but then parents — and other family members — also need to take some of the pressure off.”