It was a wintery Christmas here in New Brunswick, Canada. Ice storm, lots of snow. We also had some great time with family and friends in the month of December. And, of course, there were gifts. Some of my favorites… the homemade variety we received from some of the kids in our lives – tree ornaments, a s’mores mix, a holiday tea blend. It was awesome!
Christmas tends to be a holiday that is focused on giving and receiving gifts. And, for some children (perhaps many), the focus is on what they want and what they get from others. I’ve been to my share of Christmas events and have witnessed a variety of behaviors in children related to receiving and giving gifts. Some of these behaviors are downright rude (e.g., opening a gift and throwing it aside and moving on to the next gift – with the giver of the gift present). This could be a symptom of children receiving too much and so therefore not appreciating any one individual item. I’m not sure, but I will admit that over the years, my tolerance and patience for watching this diminishes. Thankfully, I have also witnessed children as young as three years old take time to look over gifts and thank the giver. They display respect regardless of whether the gift is something they wanted or not; something they are excited by or not. I’ve seen the same in terms of gift giving – children who have no understanding of the concept of giving (and this is a concept they can understand and practice at their age) while others are being/have been taught about what giving is or involves and have participated in the process.
Over the holidays, witnessing this range of behaviors in children got me thinking about the 40 Developmental Assets (5 to 9 year-old) and ways in which giving gifts can contribute to or support youth development. The Search Institute’s Developmental Assets include 40 values, experiences, relationships, and qualities that bring many benefits to the young people who have them. Christmas, despite the materialism associated with it, does provide an opportunity to teach children about thoughtfulness, gratitude, giving, and charity. These are all Positive Values – a category of internal assets.
Modelling Positive Values and Caring During the Holidays
Parents and other significant adults (parents of children’s friends; other relatives; neighbors) can teach and model positive character traits such as honesty, responsibility, integrity, compassion, and caring throughout the year. During the holidays, there is an opportunity to model caring behaviors in particular. Donating to charity or choosing an Angel from the Angel Tree (an initiative that often exists in communities where you can purchase a gift for a child or adult who might not otherwise receive anything for Christmas) might be ways to model care. Inviting a lonely neighbor for dinner over the holidays or giving baked goods to others are other demonstrations of care.
Facilitate Opportunities to Care
One of the specific assets within the Positive Values category that children can develop to help them be successful and thrive as adults is Caring. Children should be encouraged to complete acts of caring. They can send cards, tell others they care about them, and around the holidays, they can make and give gifts for significant people in their lives that they care about. Children can even be involved in this process by using his/her own money (if the child receives an allowance) to purchase a gift for a community toy drive or a gift from an Angel tree.
Teaching children to care about and for family members is a good beginning step. Moving forward in helping children to understand that there are children who have different circumstances than them (e.g., have less than they do) and that they can provide some care for those children may be a good next step. Working on expanding to whom children provide care can help prepare them for experiencing or developing other assets such as Providing Service to Others.
Involve Children in the Process
While dragging children on every shopping expedition around the holidays may not be feasible or wise, it may be valuable to take them at least once when picking out gifts for grandparents or siblings or other special adults. It’s an opportunity to help them to understand the notion of pairing presents with people. For example, you could say, “We’re getting this fishing rod for Grampy because he likes fishing”. Children can also help choose, “Do you think your mom would like the red yoga mat or the blue one.” This encourages children to think about others – what others like and what others enjoy doing. There could be lots of teachable moments in these kinds of excursions – discussion, for example, of what equipment is required for fishing or to participate in yoga.
Children over the age of 6 have the fine motor skills to be able to help with gift wrapping. They can pick out the wrapping paper they think the receiver might like. My oldest niece knows my favorite color is yellow – likely no accident that most pictures she draws for me have some element of yellow in it. This year the gift tags for our Christmas gifts were yellow. I can only assume that there was some conversation at some point about yellow being “Aunt Char’s favorite color”. Again, involving children in the gift preparation process is an opportunity for them to think about the people they are giving gifts, what they know about these people, and learn more about them.
Children this age are also old enough to write their names on gift tags and to write thank-you notes for gifts they receive. And they can do more than write, “Thank you for the model train”. They can indicate what they liked about the gift or how they are using it. For younger children that may still be struggling with writing, dictating a note for parents to write can work as well.
The Importance of Asset Development
While Christmas and gift giving is one opportunity to foster or support ongoing development of one or two assets, attention to asset development throughout a child’s life is important. For those unfamiliar with the role that assets can play, below are two graphs that demonstrate the relationship between the number of assets youth possess and their experiences with success and problem behaviors. Bottom line – the more assets youth develop, the better chance they have at being successful and avoiding problem behavior.
Power of Assets to Promote Youth Success
Power of Assets to Prevent Youth Problems
While the holidays may be over for this year, there are many occasions throughout the year when children can engage in thoughtfulness and caring. For example, no doubt family members will have birthdays throughout the year and Mother’s Day and Father’s Day will come quickly enough with spring. Whether you’re a parent, significant adult in a child’s life, or a youth worker, encourage children to be thoughtful about and celebrate others in their lives.
Unfortunately, most of us live in communities facing challenges in which the care and generosity of others is needed (e.g., local food banks). Beyond one’s community, there are those around the globe who need care and compassion and there are organizations such as the Red Cross, Right to Play, and Plan Canada (as examples) that work to support others. Talking to children about what’s happening in their community and around the world (not in a way that produces anxiety in children, but in a way that helps them understand that they can do something to help) can be an opportunity for them to learn about others who need care. This may give them an opportunity to think about how they could help.
Learning to receive gifts appropriately and also to give is a step in helping children to develop positive values and, in particular, caring behaviors. I was impressed by the little people in my life who, while excited about Santa and getting gifts, engaged in giving behaviors that demonstrated thoughtfulness and care for adults in their lives.