The holidays bring so many wonderful opportunities for us to enjoy our children, share in their delight and (sigh) feel like their personal shoppers. Sharing with others can be the farthest thing from your child's mind on any given day, but it is conspicuously absent when your tech-savvy 5-year-old is texting you hyperlinks from his iPhone with the exact color, make and model of the toys he wants. For me, the personal shopper dimension of the holidays is immortalized in the first Babe movie, where the eccentric visionary Farmer Hoggett, played flawlessly by James Cromwell, has worked painstakingly on a dollhouse for his granddaughter. As the cover is lifted to reveal the homemade masterpiece -- the granddaughter screams: "It's the wrong one! I want the one I saw on television!!!" The grandfather smiles wryly. Oh, to have a smidgen of that equanimity.
Is it possible to go from the Farmer Hoggett moment to a child who is excited about giving to others? I think it is. But our kids aren't the only ones who need to shift mindset. Parents need to be flexible too with rising above some of our understandable discomfort about our children's self-centered leanings. Rather than focusing on and trying to stomp out those tendencies (covering our ears and thinking -- Aughhh! I've created a monster!), focus on stoking the sparks of generosity instead.
Self-centeredness and generosity are not mutually exclusive; they are more like next-door neighbors. In other words, your child has the capacity for both. It may drive us crazy to hear the gimmes and for better or worse, we may want to drive them away by guilting our children into feeling bad for what they have or what they want. But if we want our kids to learn generosity, we'll be better served to pause, exhale and teach our kids to feel good about giving. It's different. Related, yes, but for most effective teaching purposes it's a separate conversation.
Though we may want generosity to spring from our children's spontaneous gestures, we may need to choreograph and underwrite those efforts for a while. In behavior therapy, this is what we call shaping a new response, and it's very effective. You want to help build your child's character and exercise those in-born caring circuits that can make philanthropists out of all of us. Create small gestures that allow them to practice generosity, experience how it makes a positive impact on others, and... feels good. With repetition of these patterns (funded and facilitated by you at first) your child will start to see herself as a generous person, and her actions will follow suit. She will start to "do generous" because that circuit has been located and gotten some good exercise.
Here are some ideas to get you started:
1. Your Guiding Mindset While some children are naturally aware and generous, many are not. Just as other skills that we'd like our children to have (cleaning their room, saying "thank you," putting the orange juice back in the fridge after they have some, and not drinking from the carton) need to be taught directly, so too with generosity. Don't dwell on or project negative ideas about the fact that your child isn't a "naturally" thoughtful person, instead focus on the opportunities to help him become one.
2. Phrasing Is Everything If your child is in the middle of a "gimme" moment, we could respond with: A "no!" or a "you're being selfish!" but frustration will result. Instead, give a "yes." Try to empathize and find the good: "I know there are many things that you'd like. It's fun to want things! I feel that way too. You can write them down, we'll see what surprises come. There's another project that I'd like to get your help on. There are some families who need our help for the holidays with gifts and food. Let's think of what they might like. We have what we need, so we can help others have a great holiday too. Let's see what are some things that we could do? Make cards? Buy some gifts? Cook a special meal?"
3. Get the Empathy Going by Enlisting Their Help Open the door to generosity by making a connection. "You know how special it feels to get presents? You are so excited to open the box and see what's inside. We are very fortunate that we can have lots of presents, but some children's families can't. So, we want to help them get to feel that excitement too! Can you be my helper?" Get them thinking about others' needs: "What do you think would make a special gift for another child? Do you think they'd like the same things as you? Different from you?" Welcome any replies -- keep it positive.
4. Give Your Child Choices There's no shortage of ideas. From your local church or synagogue, library, shelter or Toys for Tots there are many choices of organizations to contribute to or volunteer for the holidays. Talk to your kids about the choices, even to your young children, explain in simple terms what the organization does and ask for their input -- how does that sound to you? If you want your child to have good self-esteem around sharing, help them be part of the decision-making process (in age-appropriate ways). Collect for food banks. Adopt an elderly relative or person in the neighborhood that your child may make cards for, bring food to or help shovel snow or rake leaves.
5. Underwrite the Project at First If you are shopping for toys or clothes or even food to donate, give your child a budget and let them shop. Going to a toy store with someone else's needs in mind can be a great experience. Shopping for a particular family -- as many organizations are looking for families to provide gifts for the holidays -- gives your child a great opportunity to put himself in someone else's shoes and think about what they may want. To share the job further with your child, she can collect change from your car or couch cushions to contribute to the efforts. Older children can do chores around the house to contribute as well.
6. Highlight the Gifts They Have to Give Priming the generosity pump doesn't just have to come from a store. Think about family members, neighbors, bus drivers or teachers who would appreciate being remembered -- rather than write the cards yourself, have your child create their own expression of gratitude and thoughtfulness. Your child may have a talent to share -- reading a story or playing a musical instrument in person or via video for a neighbor or relative to enjoy.
7. Demonstrate Generosity Yourself Tell your child about efforts that you personally, or those that your workplace organizes to help out those in need. Share with your child the good feelings that you had in making that contribution happen.
8. Get Used to Not Getting All the Time Yes, practicing little stretches from self-centeredness will be helpful for all. Especially with young children, every time you step in a store they may expect that they are going to get a treat. Help your child learn to manage small amounts of disappointment by announcing: "This is an errand trip, not a treat trip." Give them a job to be your helper in the store. Over time, they'll learn to ask: "Is this an errand trip or a treat trip?" It's all about expectations. They will adjust!
Even if your child is a pretty nice kid, and I reserve the right to believe that given the right circumstances all kids belong in that category, all children can use our guidance and our example for learning how to share the goodness that we have. Creating opportunities for your children is like providing them with training wheels: the more they ride, the more they're going to see how good it feels, and then they'll take off on their own. Maybe you want to make these traditions of generosity moments a more regular event in your household -- designate a few times a year, mark them on the calendar when you as a family spend an hour or an afternoon spreading goodness -- thinking of someone who is overlooked or could really benefit--an elderly neighbor, volunteering at a soup kitchen, collecting books or clothes or food for your church. It feels good to do good. Here's to wonderful holidays for all!
©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., 2014. Previously published on Psychology Today. Author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Revised and Updated Version: Practical Strategies to Overcome Fears, Worries and Phobias and Be Prepared for Life from Toddlers to Teens