A recent Chicago Tribune article said this season’s “must-have” gift for kids is a loom for making rubberband bracelets. No electronics involved, not expensive, and boys were said to be as eager for this craft toy as girls. Really? We were heartened, but not surprised, to see that children continue to get pleasure from making something themselves. This got us to thinking more about gifts and giving.
We were reminded of the selfless giving on Sesame Street by Bert and Ernie. You may know the story. Each friend has a prized possession. For Bert, it is his paper clip collection; for Ernie, his rubber duckie. Each friend wants the gift he gives to be an extra special one, chosen thoughtfully for the other, but is discouraged by his lack of resources. A cigar box for Bert’s paper clips would be perfect, Ernie thinks. Meanwhile, Bert has decided a soap dish for Ernie’s rubber duckie is just the thing. No sacrifice seems too great, but how to come by these on a Muppet’s budget? With the help of a kindly shopkeeper, Bert trades his paper clips for the soap dish and Ernie trades his rubber duckie for a cigar box. The shopkeeper wisely allows the boys to follow their hearts, but he also makes sure that their own treasures are restored to these generous gift-givers at the end of the story.
Both giving and receiving are at the heart of most holiday celebrations in every religious tradition. As much as gifts delight, however, they can also be the source of worry for children. The very elements of magic and surprise that appeal to grown-ups can be troubling to some kids. Was I naughty or nice enough for my wish to come true? Did I pout and shout? Did my mom mean it when she said that I’d get my presents if I was good? Did my Grandpa mean it when he said Santa wouldn’t come if I was bad? I’m just a kid, what can I give that’s good enough?
Here are a few ideas to consider to help enhance the joy of giving and reduce some of the burdens:
*Help your child think about all the ways in which he has been generous to others so that he can rest assured that his good deeds will be reciprocated. Many of us who were raised with holiday threats and bribes carry these unhappy memories with us and have to work to not repeat the practice ourselves.
*Help your child with homemade gifts she can be proud of. Wonderful craft kits or gift-making places provide kids with both the fun of creating and the pride of giving something they’ve done themselves. Resist the temptation to buy something for your son to “give.” Outward pride at giving something “big” may come at the expense of feeling ashamed that he did not really pay for it himself. Among the best presents one of us, a fisherman, ever received was an ornament made from a red felt triangle for a hat, with a white cotton pompom, and a fish hook to hang it on the tree. This, along with a drawing made long ago, bring warm memories year after year.
*Be a model for the kind of giver and receiver you hope your child will become. Make something yourself. Have your daughter add her signature to your holiday card. Write your thank you notes at the table with your kids, don’t just send them off to do them as if they’re chores. Talk together about where your family might donate time or money to help others.
*Support realistic expectations by talking with your child about the holiday. Some parents find they can reduce anxiety by assuring their children that they can count on getting the present they most want. Some offer an idea about how many presents there may be so that hopes can be high and disappointments low. Parents sometimes think their children are ungrateful when they ask “Is that all?” after the last box is opened. We think that it is just a way to manage the feelings of letdown after weeks of heightened excitement. Letting a child open one gift before breakfast or saving stockings or a last gift for after dinner can make the waiting and holiday ending easier.
The late comedienne Erma Bombeck famously wrote that “guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.” From our perspective, an equally true statement is that “pride is that gift that keeps on giving.” We hope you and your families all have a holiday season in which you feel proud that you gave as well as you got.
Denia Barrett, LCSW