My daughter was shocked. “Mom,” she reported in one of those breathless cell phone calls she makes as she rushes across campus. “There’s a girl in my dorm whose family has a rule that gifts are only given to children and children never ever have to give anything to anyone else! Can you believe it? She’s 20 years old and still thinks of herself as one of the kids! No wonder she has trouble with sharing!”
Every now and then, we parents get confirmation that we’ve done something right. Every now and then our emerging adult kids get what we’ve been up to all these years. Yes, my kids have always been helped to give each other a little something on birthdays and Christmas. Yes, they’ve always been expected to be part of making, finding, wrapping, and delivering gifts to the adults in their lives. And yes, they’ve also been part of donating to charity or participating in some service project in this, the giving-est time of the year. It’s been a central family value that those who can should do for others. Happily, we’re finding that those lessons did stick.
Alfred Adler, an early 20th-century psychologist, believed that good mental health is a consequence of our “social interest,” our concern for our fellow human beings. People whose focus is on helping others, not just getting for themselves, are people who are happiest and most fulfilled. People who are generous and thoughtful of others are less anxious, less depressed, and feel more connected with their community. People who are open-hearted and giving to their partners keep love alive. By teaching our children the joy of giving, not just receiving, we show them how to be mentally healthy and how to live well with others.
Like most values, social interest isn’t something we can just assume children will understand. Teaching them that making a gift is an act of thoughtfulness, not just something to get out of the way, takes time and patience. Modeling, coaching, and actively involving our kids in the art of giving instills the habit.
It’s important to teach that making a gift is not about going to the local dollar store and throwing stuff in a basket. It’s about thinking hard about what the receiver might like and matching a gift to his or her interests and tastes. It’s important to show our children that the amount of money spent is nowhere near as important as the amount of thought. It’s important to talk about the fact that the gifts that are most appreciated are those that are most personal. And it’s important to show them that sometimes time, not stuff, is the perfect way to say “I love you.”
Teaching the Art of Gifting
When children were young at our house, each parent conspired with various combinations of kids to think about what the other parent, siblings, or relatives might like. Hours were spent around the kitchen table or in the barn doing projects. Often the gift was a gaudily decorated “gift certificate” for chores or special time: “This gift certificate may be redeemed to do your chore of the week, no argument” might go to a sibling. “This gift certificate is good for five hours of weeding the garden” might go to a mom or aunt with more ambition than time for a flower garden.
Friends have come up with other creative ways to include children in the giving part of the holiday season.
“We actually start thinking about Christmas in the summer,” says Mike. Mike is a frequenter of summer garage sales. “The kids and I are always on the lookout for things other people in the family would love. This year we found a brand-new, still in the box, porcelain teacup for my mother, an old clock that my brother will love, books and records that match different people’s tastes, and some new and like-new games and toys for young cousins.”