For most kids, 'tis the season of getting, which can be profoundly aggravating and discouraging to parents. Most parents want their children to be empathetic and benevolent, rather than demanding and self-centered. But parents need to take responsibility too, and teach their kids that it truly is better (or at least, as good) to give than to receive.
According to the experts at St. Louis Children's Hospital, don't fret if your child isn't as naturally giving as you'd like. A case of the gimmes is not a cause for panic.
"Parents have to realize that a certain amount of the child's focus is going to be on himself or herself, and that's not a bad thing," said Jeffrey Rothweiler, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at St. Louis Children's Hospital. "It's healthy, but it's not the whole picture. Parents need to teach kids that it's important to pay attention to the self, but it's equally important to pay attention to others."
And the best way to teach is to show, he said.
"Allow the child to share with you the excitement over giving," he said. "Let it be infectious, like laughter can be infectious."
Include your children on gift planning and purchasing, whether buying a gift for a family member or for someone in need who you don't know. Make it natural and enjoyable.
"When teaching early concepts of giving to children, try not to use others as an example," said Jennifer Blankenship, manager of Child Life Services at St. Louis Children's Hospital. "Focus more on the concept of giving in general, rather than over-emphasizing what others don't have. Teaching the art of giving should be a very positive experience for everyone."
Altruistic behavior doesn't necessarily come naturally, Dr. Rothweiler notes. Kids must be taught. How you go about teaching them depends on their ages, he said.
* Toddlers: Naturally egocentric, the littlest ones don't understand philanthropy. However, having them go along to pick out presents for other people in the family lays the groundwork. They'll still need a little guidance, though. "A 3-year-old might want to pick out a dolly for daddy, which might be something she really likes," says Blankenship. "Try compromising with her. Try to get her to think about what the other person likes to do for fun. Or choose two or three items and let her decide which one to give. For instance, you might suggest your toddler pick out a picture frame to give to daddy, and then you can put a picture of her in it so daddy can always be reminded of her."
Another option is to pick out the present ("Mommy will love this necklace") but have the child pick out the wrapping paper and put the bow on, said Dr. Rothweiler. On Christmas morning, the child can play the "elf," by delivering presents to the family members gathered around the tree.
It's not a bad idea to tell the little ones what you like about giving, he said. "Say, "I like to watch grandma's eyes light up, and get a hug from her when she gets the present,"" he said.
* Ages 6 to 8: Involve the child in the giving process even more, by allowing him to make some choices. Have him pick out a toy to put in a "Toys For Tots" bin. If he's invited to a birthday party, he can pick out the present. "Say, "You know Joe from school and Boy Scouts. Let's think about Joe. What does he like? Does he like action figures or games?"" said Dr. Rothweiler. "When it comes to charitable giving, have your child step into the recipient's shoes. Say, "Maybe this child doesn't have good food to eat, maybe he's cold at night. What should we get him?""
* Ages 8 and older: This is the age when kids can truly grasp the concept of being charitable through concrete experiences. Now is the time to work with kids to help them instigate projects, such as building a playground, starting a toy, food or book drive.
"Find something that is of interest to them, and tap into that interest," said Blankenship. "Perhaps it's collecting videos and Nintendo games and giving them to a local charity, or running a lemonade stand and then donating the money."
"As kids get to be 12 or older, they think more and more like adults," said Dr. Rothweiler. "You can do family projects, or approach a social service agency, the school or a church for charitable opportunities."
If you are thinking about taking your children to, say, a soup kitchen to volunteer, be sure they can handle it.
"Depending on the child, it might be too much exposure," said Dr. Rothweiler. "I wouldn't do it with young kids. High schoolers would probably be OK, maybe kids in middle school. No younger."
And don't focus on giving only during the holiday season. Blankenship suggests getting involved with a charity year-round. The more the kids are exposed to their parents being charitable, the more likely they are to be charitable themselves.
It might make you feel pretty good as well.
"It's a mistake to label the gimmes as bad -- everyone has to be selfish to a degree," said Dr. Rothweiler. "Let them have the gimmes, then add in the giving."
The physicians at St. Louis Children's Hospital are faculty members of Washington University School of Medicine. Considered one of the top medical schools in the country, Washington University is known for excellence in medical research, teaching and patient care. St. Louis Children's Hospital is also a member of BJC HealthCare, the first fully integrated health care system in the country to join an academic medical center with suburban, rural and metropolitan-based health care facilities. For more information about St. Louis Children's Hospital, visit http://www.stlouischildrens.org.
The Child Life Services department works with patients and families to develop ways to cope with fear, anxiety and separation from friends and family by using play, recreation and education techniques. All Child Life specialists have advanced training at a bachelor or master's degree level and also are required to maintain professional certification with the Child Life Council.