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December, 2007

Climbing Bittersweet

The holiday season is here again and with it comes the annual frenzy to chose what gifts to give and how much we should give. And there are hopes and fears about what we might receive as well.

But this season also provides an opportunity to teach our children and remind ourselves of the value of giving in a thoughtful and empathic way. What we give and how much and to whom are expressions of our values which we can pass on to our children. Here are some thoughts about children and giving.

When Giving To Children, Start With Empathy.

Giving gifts can be pleasurable both for the giver and the recipient. If you love your children (or grandchildren or even the children of others), you naturally want them to enjoy this special time of the year. But don't give them more than is good for them, even if you can afford to.

It's normal for children to want lots of gifts. You can teach them that gifts are more about feelings and caring than about how much they get. Since holiday times are special, indulging a child's wishes somewhat more than usual is okay. But it's also okay, even healthy, for a child to experience some disappointment and to observe restraint on the part of his parents and other adults. This helps him to develop a realistic appreciation of the value of what he does receive.

A child who experiences unrestrained gratification of his wishes fails to learn the meaning of limits and self restraint. To be truly empathic you must recognize what a child wants, but also understand what is best for him (or her). It's up to the parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle to figure out what to give and how much to spend, without going overboard, and to deal lovingly with whatever disappointment a child may feel. This is not an easy task, but taking the time to think about and act on these principles is a gift in itself.

One technique some parents use is to have a child make up a wish list, letting him (or her) know (if the list is long) that he will be getting some of what he wants but not everything. It is a good idea to help children prioritize their wishes.

What Makes It Hard To Keep From Overdoing Gift Giving?

Here are some reasons why it can be difficult to keep ourselves from going overboard with gift giving during the holidays.

  • Living Out Our Fantasies Through Our Children.

    Most of us have fantasies of being gratified without limitations. We know we can't have everything we want but the holiday season seems to offer us a license to suspend our inhibitions. Many parents gratify their own fantasies by overindulging their children, imagining what it is like to be a child showered with gifts. But the child's actual experience of being overindulged may be more like overdosing on drugs; a temporary high followed by an empty, let down feeling and a craving for even more.
  • Competitiveness.

    Adults sometimes try to outdo each other when it comes to gift giving, trying to prove how much more generous (and better) they re than someone else. They may hope that the excitement and appreciation their gifts generate will prove they are worthy people. Divorced parents are especially vulnerable to this kind of competitive giving, but others suffer from it as well.
  • Guilt.

    The absent father may feel guilty for not spending enough time with his child; the harried mother for her impatience. Advertisements push the expensive new and trendy doll or computer game or something else that all of the other kids will surely be getting. This seems to offer an easy way to make up for our failings. But, what other kids are getting is not necessarily right for your kid, or for your budget. And overspending out of guilt is an avoidance of facing your own limitations. For Christmas or Hanukkah give yourself the gift of self acceptance and give your kids gifts that are thoughtfully selected and affordable. If there is a good reason for you to feel guilty, try to be a better parent in the future.

    What do these three things have in common? They all lead to giving in a way that is really a disguised attempt to gratify the adult's own unrequited yearnings or to salve insecurities. This undermines his or her ability to appreciate what's best for the child and to give with empathy. The more we can overcome these emotions the easier it becomes to give with true generosity of spirit.

Teach Generosity and Caring

A time of giving also offers an opportunity to teach lessons about giving. You can teach a child to think about other people and how much thoughtful gifts can mean. You can also teach generosity of spirit, and that even those of us with limited means can afford to care about and give something to others. With young children, start within the family. Involve a young child in thinking about the choice of a gift for a parent, sibling, or grandparent. With older children, involve them in the choice of charitable gifts the family will give or the volunteer work they will do. This will help them to expand their sense of connection to the wider world and foster a greater sense of generosity and caring.

For this holiday season I wish you the gifts of good health, peace, love, and joy.

Richard Trachtman

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