Nov 18, 2008
Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies*
The holidays are supposed to bring out the best in all of us, but it can bring out the worst in our children and in us as parents. The winter holidays is a time of stress and high expectations, and both are hard for children to handle. Pretty much all humans, except for Gandhi or Mother Theresa, are insatiable beings. We all have limitless wants and wishes. Our desires can lead us to great things and achievements, and they can also lead us towards greed and envy. Children have those same feelings, but unlike adults, they don’t understand why all of their wants can’t (and shouldn’t) be granted.
This time of year, children are bombarded with toys, Santa, treats, and commercials. We really can’t blame them for craving all the terrific things they see, especially when so many of them believe that Santa will bring whatever they want. While we would love to curb their greed, the usual methods reasonable parents try don’t work very well against the holiday hype. We try to explain to children about limited budgets, how we need to save for college, and how it’s impossible for grandma to know exactly what Barbie is the perfect one. But kids don’t understand, not really. You can talk yourself blue in the face to a four-year-old who wants a toy NOW, and he’s not going to understand anything beyond what his experience tells him. He knows that you could buy whatever it is he wants (you’re his parent, you can do anything right?), but you won’t until he convinces you that he really, really needs it.
We parents all know that this becomes a cycle. First the child demands, then the parent refuses. The child gets more upset, and the parent starts feeling guilty, then frustrated, then angry. The child escalates until the parent punishes, leaving both people feeling terrible. Another awful situation arises when you give a child a beautiful, expensive, difficult to assemble gift, only to have him cry that he doesn’t like it. The holiday combination of stressed-out parents, too much excitement, and unrealistic expectations sets our kids up for meltdowns.
So here are some ideas for the holidays that might help take the edge off a bit:
1. Avoid the danger zones. Try not to take your child to the toy store, the mall, and turn-off the Saturday morning cartoon line-up and kids cable channels (where all of the toy commercials are). The stores are overwhelming and crowded this time of year. All those toys are just too tempting for a child to ignore gracefully. If you must take your child shopping, let her know at the outset what you will and will not be purchasing. Be ready to leave the store if your child is not cooperative.
2. Focus on the giving. Keep your child’s attention directed towards all of the things he is going to give to others. Take him to the craft store and get lots of supplies for making ornaments, menorahs, scrapbooks, paintable coffee cups and cards (get lots of glitter). Help your child buy gifts online so you won’t have to go to the stores. Shoot for having your child have a gift or card for everyone who will be giving him a gift. Teach your child about giving to charities. A child can pick out a Toys-For-Tots (just have him pick out one for a child of a different age or gender so he can part with the toy without tears) or help choose items for a care package to a solider in Iraq (www.anysoldier.com). Don’t forget your child’s teacher!
3. Limit the Loot. Limit yourself and your relatives in the gift giving department. Keep it to one or two gifts at any one occasion, and put a cap on the amount people will spend. Never let a young child see a gift that he can not open and play with immediately (such as one that takes hours to assemble), otherwise you are sure to provoke tears.
4. Practice how to accept gifts. Role play how to accept a gift with your child. Try scenarios where you don’t like it or already have it. Teach the child to say a warm ‘thank you’ and to write or color thank-you notes.
5. Empathize. Children sometimes do get disappointed at the holidays; we can’t ever get them every wonderful, expensive gift they desire. Part of our job as parents is helping our children deal with disappointment. Resist the urge to lecture or call your child ungrateful. Nothing will make your child cry harder than you trying to argue him out of how he feels (e.g. Stop that crying, its a beautiful present! You're acting like a spoiled brat!). Instead, find that part of yourself that can relate to being a sad little kid who didn’t get what she wished for Christmas morning (I never did get a pony). Give a hug, give some cocoa, and then gently help steer your child’s focus back on all the things to be grateful for. Empathy is one of our best gifts we can give a struggling child, especially during the holidays.
Dr. Rebecca Resnik
* Title inspired by the rock band by that name