During one holiday, Jessica and Mark noticed that their three sons had fallen into the “Gimme Trap.” “We wanted them to learn that giving is just as fun as receiving,” they said. So, the parents initiated a new holiday tradition: Secret Kindness Buddies. Each person—including Mom and Dad—pulled a name from a basket and then was to perform a secret act of kindness toward the buddy each day during Hanukkah. Deeds may not be purchased but must come “straight from the heart.” Any hesitations faded by their first secret act. The kids baked cookies, picked a flower bouquet, restrung a sibling’s broken necklace, cleaned a brother’s room, and even delivered breakfast in bed to Mom. “They couldn’t wait to try to surprise their sibling and watch his reaction,” Jessica said. “The best thing was that my boys relearned the joy of giving.”
Jessica and Mark aren’t alone: many parents want their kids to focus more on kindness, caring, and giving and there are lots of ways to do so. Just make sure to keep the activities fun, and take time to chat about how both recipients and givers were affected. Doing so will build your kids’ kindness muscles and help them think more about others and less about themselves. Here are a few ideas from my book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World, to help cultivate children’s capacity to care. Best yet, none of these ideas cost a dime, they create warm family memories, and help kids understand the real meaning of the season. It’s the people, not the things, that really matter.
Start a Family Kindness Box.
An old shoebox with a slit cut in the top will do for this simple activity. Then just encourage your family to look for others doing kind deeds. Write or draw the deeds and slip them in the box. Then read those notes during your family meal or family gathering every day during the holidays. It helps everyone start looking for the “good” in one another. Hint: You might even extend the activity throughout the year.
Cut Out Holiday Fluff.
Think about all of the holiday paraphernalia you purchased last year—gift cards, ribbon, wrapping paper, greeting cards, postage, table decorations, etc.—and get your kids involved in helping you make them instead. For instance, your older kids can create holiday cards via the computer by typing up personal greetings, scanning photos, or decorating with online holiday images and emailing them to friends and family. Your kids (young and old) can create wrapping paper by decorating brown butcher paper or grocery bags turned inside out with drawings or cookie cutters dipped in tempera paint. Even younger children can make tags for presents with index cards and holiday stickers. Their personalized cards, wrapping paper and gift tags help your kids think more about giving and less about getting.
Start a Family Caring Ritual.
Look for ways to put a little fun into your family deed giving, and if you can create a simple, fun weekly ritual, it’s a “win-win.” One mom has her kids write “Happy Holiday” notes, attach them to candy canes, and then leave them secretly on neighbors’ doorsteps. (She says her kids love hiding behind the shrubs and watching the neighbors’ delighted reactions.) Or make Tuesday “Cookie Day” -- when you and your kids deliver a batch—store bought or homemade—to a different deserving person.
Emphasize Together Time.
Suggest that family members give the gift of time to your kids instead of purchased gifts. Have a family outing to a zoo, skating rink, or to the beach. You can even go berry picking or kite flying. Teaching your kids a specific skill such as how to fish, bake an apple cobbler, knit a scarf, or throw a football is also a fantastic way to give your “time gift.” The point is that you are spending time together, and whatever you choose to do, being together often proves to be more memorable than opening up that “it” toy or electronic device that will soon be forgotten.
When my oldest son was nine, his teacher arranged for his class to sing at a nursing home during the holidays. Students practiced for weeks, but my son was hesitant because he hadn’t had many experiences with the elderly. Once we talked about what he could expect, his concerns eased, and by the time he came home, his fears were gone. In fact, he couldn’t wait to visit his “new friends” again. “They like music and get lonely when their family doesn’t visit, too. A bunch of kids want to go back. Can you take us?” Of course, we did, and caroling at the nursing home became a family holiday tradition that helped my children learn to care about others. Is there a nursing home, shelter, or hospital where your family can visit to spread joy? Why not ask the neighbors or your children’s friends to join and help your kids understand the true meaning of the holidays.
Suggest "Straight from the Heart" Gifts.
This activity helps children recognize that the best gifts are purchased not with money, but with their time and love. It’s also a perfect family gift-making activity for the holidays. You’ll need drawing paper cut into pieces about 4” x 8,” colored pens or crayons, and a stapler. Give each family gift-maker a few pieces of cut paper and colored pens. Ask them to choose someone to receive a coupon book. On the top of each coupon page help your child write: “Because I care about you I will....” followed by a different caring chore they’re willing to do for the person. A few: promising to call Grandma once a week, pledging to bake cookies for Grandpa, or vowing to take out the trash for Mom sans nagging. Children could sign, date, and illustrate each page with drawings, cut-out pictures, stamps or stencil designs. Then place the finished coupons between a folded colored-paper cover, and staple the sides of the booklet. The gift is ready to give to the lucky recipient with the coupons redeemable for caring deeds.
Rehearse Appreciation and Gratitude
Appreciation is a skill that can be taught. The art of tact, gratitude and gracefulness are learned, and there still is time to teach those glorious skills of how to appear appreciative before the relatives arrive with gifts for your kiddos. So teach your child how to accept gifts graciously by rehearing polite comebacks prior to a gift-gifting event. A few gracious responses might be: “Thank you for this.” “I really appreciate it” or “Thanks. That was nice of you.” Sometimes “Thank you so much!” might be best. Make sure to act out the appreciation role yourself. “Sometimes I don’t get what I hope for, but I try to make the person who gave me the gift happy.” Repeated practice is critical to succeed in mastering this skill, so please don’t wait until the night before to start those rehearsals and think your kid is going to be able to pull off appearing gracious under fire.
In the end, remember that the holidays are really meant to be about love, togetherness, and wonderful memories. The key is allowing kids to experience the joy of giving to others including wrapping the gift, taking time to think about what to give, and shopping or making that item. Hands-on giving is always the best way to help a child understand how it feels to be the recipient of appreciation.