SINGAPORE: My children relish the holiday season, not just because they get to play to their hearts’ content, but also because they are looking forward to unwrapping their presents on Christmas day.
Gift giving and receiving are key components of the Christmas season, as with gathering with family and friends over a feast.
But young children tend to skip the giving part and go straight to the receiving; sometimes this even entails demanding for things.
Parents would do well to consider this delicate balancing act.
Perhaps we feel that they have worked hard throughout the year, and it’s only right to reward them with a holiday or a much-desired gift.
But how do we refrain from spoiling our kids and contain the entitlement monster that seems to rear its ugly head especially during this season?
“Mummy, last year you got me a Frozen Lego set. Can I get the bigger set that comes with a castle this year?”
“Brother received a Playstation for his birthday, so why can’t I get a Wii?”
I don’t like the present aunty gave me. Can I exchange it?
Such questions tend to be greeted with a loud sigh on our part, as we struggle to impart the meaning of gift giving, yet keep ourselves from morphing into the Christmas scrooge.
How do we engage in festive giving and receiving with grace, and inspire children to find joy in giving, not merely in receiving?
START WITH GRATITUDE
I shudder each time the kids attempt to unwrap their gift in front of its giver.
What if they don’t like it? What if they show their disdain?
(For a person with a background in Public Relations, this carries crisis potential so I’m always on high alert.)
When it comes to teaching gratitude, we tend to wag our fingers at our children. “Be thankful,” we nag, “children in (name a third world country) don’t even have food to eat and clothes to wear.”
Alas, this refrain doesn’t always have the desired effect. Children may find it hard to picture the sad plight of these poor children; the reality is simply too far removed from their cushy everyday lives.
Research shows that gratitude carries many psychological benefits. An article on the Wall Street Journal states: “Researchers find that people with a grateful disposition are more thankful for a wider variety of things in their lives, such as their friends, their health, nature, their jobs or a higher power – and they experience feelings of gratitude more intensely.”
How do we train up this gratitude muscle?
For starters, we can teach our children to thank their gift-givers properly. This is a basic social skill that many children struggle with.
Instead of looking at the gift-bearer in the eye and thanking them, kids get off by muttering a cursory “thanks” – often directed at the gift instead of the giver.
We can also teach them to focus on others’ feelings, for example when they present a friend a gift. Get them to observe the recipient’s feelings, words and facial expression. And then ask them, “Do you think your friend liked the gift?” and, “How does that make you feel?”
If we don’t teach our children and give them opportunities to exercise gratitude, then we may be allowing its lesser twin, entitlement, to foster instead.
LEARN TO SAY NO
Whenever presented with an extra loud or whiny “request” for the latest book series or Nerf gun, it is tempting to cave and give in to the want – cleverly disguised as a need.
But try not to commit to anything immediately. By taking the time to think, and to say no occasionally, you may find that you’re doing both your wallet and your child a favour.
Children who get their every wish granted will likely find it hard to take “no” for an answer, the rare moment it comes. They may also struggle to appreciate what they already have.
Each time their stash of toys gets enlarged, the older toys tend to be relegated to a corner, leading to opportunities lost to maximise the joy and experience that each toy can bring.
Take for example my kids’ Lego stash. Each time they receive a new set, the older creations get stored away. But each time I say “no”, there is a chance that they may start fiddling with their previous creations, jiggling bits around, and re-modelling them into new things.
Having less means that you are forced to be creative with what you already have.
This doesn’t mean you should say no to everything they ask for of course. Requests to have a play date with friends, an outdoor picnic, or a hug should be met with an emphatic “yes”.
READ: Raising 7 children on S$3,000 a month in Singapore, and a tale of constructive parenting, a commentary
PRACTISE GIVING AS A FAMILY
We don’t need to wait till Christmas to teach our children how to give; opportunities abound in the everyday.
Is someone you know unwell? Rally the kids to brainstorm ideas about how to help this person or make her feel better.
When we regularly embark on “giving” projects – whether it’s for grandmother or a neighbour – it becomes part of the family DNA, and our children’s mindset and way of life in later years.
Instead of growing up feeling like the whole world revolves around them, they learn to see themselves as playing a meaningful and contributing role in society.
If we go deeper, they may also learn that their abilities were given for a purpose. That life isn’t solely about getting good grades, graduating from a prestigious university and making a good living.
Shel Silverstein’s classic book, The Giving Tree, talks about the unconditional love a tree gives to a little boy. The boy grows up and continues to search for his own happiness and insodoing, takes just about everything from the tree, leaving just the stump.
There are many ways to interpret this story, but one question to ask ourselves is, do we, like the tree, give everything we have just to make our young happy?
Is this really in their best interest? Does this really build up their self-esteem?
Or do we at some point say:
Look, son, this is all I have to give. The rest, you will have to figure out yourself and learn to be resourceful. You should also learn to give to others.
It is hard to see our children struggle. Every fibre of our being wants to reach out and help.
But often, these struggles build character, and life’s small disappointments are invaluable opportunities to learn resilience and to roll with the punches.
So this Christmas, think twice about lavishing gifts that our kids want just to show our love. There are many other ways to show them love.
And if we exercise self-control in our giving, they will begin to appreciate what they do have, and learn to become a keen contributor to society in future – not just a taker.
June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.