Children & the Spirit of Giving

Q. I get so distressed by my children’s requests around this time of year. It seems that every time I turn around my 5 and 7 year-old have another request for their “Christmas wish list.” This upsets me for two reasons. First, I would like to instill in my children the spirit of giving-not receiving- during the holidays. Secondly, I cannot afford to buy them all of the things they want. Instead of being excited about what I am giving them, I feel guilty or sad about the things I can’t give them. And I feel bad about raising children who are not giving. Any suggestions?


A. I can understand how it would be dismaying to have you children requesting lots of presents when you would like them to be focusing on giving. It would be very difficult (and atypical) for young children to acting differently however, because of the developmental issues involved. Starting from birth, children go through a phase psychologists call “normal egocentricity.” This basically means that the child thinks he/she is the center of the universe around whom everything revolves. Very young children believe that everything they need or desire should be given to them immediately. Because infants come into the world so helpless and because a part of good parenting is responding to the needs of the infant, the infant (in a healthy situation) learns that his/her cry elicits the desired response of a caregiver. This sets the stage for the child believing that he/she is the center around which things revolve. Infants and young children know very little of the world, society at large and the other responsibilities of their parents. All they know is that they have needs and wants and parents should fulfill them.

An important part of maturation is developing the understanding that others have needs too and that we cannot always have our needs and wants fulfilled. The wish to have “what we want, when we want it” never goes away; the only change is the expectation that we will get what we want immediately. This is part of the human condition. Therefore, I don’t think you should feel bad about parenting. On the contrary, it indicates that you have probably given your children the things they needed in their early years.

Children develop a wish to give when they find it brings pleasure to people they love. They feel good about making a loved one happy. Therefore, the first step is instilling a spirit of giving is to foster a nurturing relationship with your child and to accept their spontaneous gifts with enthusiasm. To help instill the spirit of giving during the holidays, you might make it a special tradition to prepare a gift basket for the needy and then deliver it to a homeless shelter. Explaining your reasons for wanting to give away food or gifts will help your child understand its importance.

I can also understand how it would make you feel sad to be unable to give your children everything they want. Children seldom expect to receive all the gifts on their list, however (especially if they have been forewarned).  Typically, they are so excited about the gifts they did receive, that they quickly forget about the ones they didn’t. Therefore, you need not feel guilty about what you cannot buy them. It is also useful to help your children prioritize their lists so that you understand what is most important to them and why. I hope the rest of your shopping is guilt-free. Happy Holidays!

 Note:  This was a question answered by Dr. Cynthia Divino in her column for the Boulder Parent between the years 1991 and 1994.  The articles have been updated and republished here to help the BIPR parenting community.

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