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5 Gifts to Teach

The spirit of the holiday season offers a window of opportunity for fostering five positive character traits in your children.

By Carolyn Buchanan | null , null

This time of year tends to bring out the desire in all of us to share a spirit of love. Hearts are full and everyone tries extra hard to be a little more giving, a little more patient, a little more understanding of others. This unique time also provides you with a chance to demonstrate and teach your child five character traits we identified with the help of child development experts and parental hindsight. They can help your children enjoy the holidays more and create a solid foundation for growth for years to come.

We all have the best intentions when using the well-worn phrase “What do you say?” to prompt our children to show gratitude by saying thank you. After all, acknowledging the generosity of others is high on the manners list. But gratitude is more than just an expression; it’s a feeling. The holidays are ready-made for understanding this trait because there is typically so much to be grateful for—food on the table, time with family and friends, and yes, presents.

If your child is very young, help her get in the habit of saying thank you before gift-giving begins. You make the best role model, so giving her a well-timed thank you when she does something simple like makes her bed or brushes her teeth can introduce the habit early. Be sure to encourage her to do the same when you do things for her. When it comes to thank yous for gifts, Sheryl Eberly, author of 365 Manners Kids Should Know, suggests prompting kids in private before they receive a gift, and then praising them in private once they’ve said thank you to the giver.

Children in kindergarten and older can understand gratitude on a deeper level. Try prompting them with questions such as, “You love dinosaurs, so this T-Rex puzzle is the perfect gift, isn’t it?” or “Won’t it be fun to read your new book with Grandma?” The goal is for kids to express what they like about the gift and to make a connection between the gift and the giver. Once children understand that the gesture is what’s important, a thank you for a gift they’re not so thrilled about comes more naturally.

The holidays are also a good opportunity to step back and help everyone in the family appreciate what they already have. Think of it as managing instant gratification. “Parents are partners in guiding their children to recognize the difference between an impulse and deferred gratification,” says Karen Deerwater, author of The Entitlement-Free Child. You might try extending the Thanksgiving tradition of asking “What are you thankful for?” into a nightly ritual for the whole family to foster this positive trait.


The experience of giving can be the most rewarding present you give your child this season. Sure, the “getting” is nice, but giving sows the seeds for greater rewards over a lifetime. Once your child experiences the pleasure of seeing others delight or benefit from her generosity, chances are she’ll want to do it again and again.

Deerwater suggests that before the holiday season starts, families plan a new giving tradition. This can be the giving of a gift to friends or a teacher, or donating to a needy cause. Deerwater stresses the importance of involving your children (depending on their age) in the planning and follow-through as much as possible. “Children want to be part of things bigger than themselves, but they need grown-ups to create the vision and the ties that bind the world together.”

In the holiday spirit, make plans with your child to give to those less fortunate than you. Ask for advice on the item you’d like to donate and who he thinks should receive it. If it makes sense, follow through and involve your child every step of the way, from shopping to delivering the goods. You can also demonstrate other forms of generosity by baking cookies for a food pantry together, singing carols in a soup kitchen, or visiting a nursing home.

Learning to empathize—that is, to understand and share the feelings of others—is a gradual process for kids. It’s difficult for them to grasp the perspective of others, especially at very young ages. But you can lay the groundwork by demonstrating this trait yourself. Educator Mary Gordon, author of the best-selling Roots of Empathy, reminds parents that children watch us all the time. It’s one way they learn how to treat others. If we let the stress of the holidays make us cranky—and it’s easy to do with the change in routines, the frantic bustle, the charged family dynamics—we can sometimes brush aside our children’s feelings even as we expect them to be on their best behavior. “Children learn to be kind, empathetic, thoughtless, or impatient from us,” says Gordon.

Because, as she puts it, empathy is “caught not taught,” Gordon suggests putting yourself in your children’s shoes and looking at the holiday through their eyes. “It’s all about perspective-taking,” says Gordon. “Talk and reflect with them about last Christmas so they can unpack their emotions and share expectations and concerns.” Chances are, your child’s favorite memories have little to do with presents received and everything to do with shared experiences.

You can practice empathy outside the home as well. Treat others with respect, even when crankiness arises. Have conversations with your child about how others are feeling using descriptive words, such as happy or sad. This will help your child take the perspective of others and consider what they might be thinking. 

Must the holiday season be so solemn? No, but our expectations for happiness sometimes become so high that we idealize what we think the holidays should be. Chill. Put aside the need for perfection—in yourself, in others, and in your children. Look for opportunities to experience simple family joys, no matter which holidays you celebrate. Build a snowman one evening. Bake cookies together and let your children put the sprinkles on. Find a holiday DVD for everyone to laugh at. Your goal is to encourage optimism while being realistic about the season. By keeping the mood light—at holiday time and beyond—you send the message to your child that life is more than one big chore.

Try as you might, you often can’t control holiday offerings from others, be they gifts, sweets, or otherwise. You can use these moments to impart the meaning of restraint (think of it as managing indulgence—an experience that will serve your children well when they are older and tempted to try risky behaviors). Every Christmas, Betsy Taylor of Richmond, VA, visits her in-laws for holiday dinner, and every year she and her daughter walk into a veritable candy store of sugary treats at every turn. Encouraged by their hosts to indulge, Betsy’s daughter used to be sick and irritable by the time dinner was served. Now on the way to Grandmother’s house, they discuss the pros and cons of abundance and get in a little history lesson by talking about how preserving food was once near impossible. Today, we can put food away for another day, save dessert for after dinner, and balance a sweet or two with fresh fruit. (Try clementines!)

Practicing restraint yourself is a big plus as well. Try to hold back on showering your children with gifts, even if you are fortunate enough to have a budget that allows otherwise. Instead, consider what your child will value a week, a month, or a year from now. An artistic child might treasure an easel, while the perfect gift for an animal lover could be a family membership to the zoo. In the long run, it’s the gift of time and attention you give your children that will be far more memorable than anything you buy for them.  

About the Author

Carolyn Buchanan is a contributing editor to Scholastic Parent & Child.

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