“Look, Mama!” my five-year-old son E said peering proudly over his grocery bag teeming with - toys? “Oh!” I was confused by what I saw. It was the day of the school Christmas store in which students could buy gifts for family members at inexpensive prices. We had spent time the day prior talking about what Daddy, Grandma, and Grandpa might like for gifts. And I had placed a $10 bill in an envelope in E’s backpack to allow him to make purchases. I thought I had properly prepared him. But when his teacher sent him off shopping with a fourth grade buddy as his guide, he felt overwhelmed by the sparkling goodies before him. His buddy, a go-with-the-flow kind of guy, told him, “Yeah, get some for yourself.” The freedom and excitement E must have felt having money to spend took him over and he forgot the reason he was shopping in the first place.
Children at the preschool and kindergarten age fly with grand excitement from one play activity to another. Their attention span does not last long. So preparations the day prior, as I had tried to do with my son, are not typically retained. And impulse control is still not completely developed. Which means when left to their own devices, they may not stop themselves from grabbing goodies at their fingertips.
However, children’s development at this stage can assist them in some ways. They are often eager helpers. They want to demonstrate their ability to do tasks on their own, even if they may fumble a bit, and they are thirsty to show others how they can contribute to a home or classroom.
At the most fundamental level, children have a readiness for giving and generosity when parents have demonstrated giving to them through their love, attention and responsiveness to their emotions. Young children seek a secure attachment with their parents so if a parent responds with care when they are upset, the child grows in his trust for them and in turn, the rest of the world. Conversely, if a child is told to ‘toughen up’ or ‘stop crying’ when upset or simply ignored, that shutting down of their emotions can make the child feel insecure, not trusting themselves or their relationships.
The young child gets overwhelmed by her feelings and still cannot adequately communicate them. Her upset can be compounded by her lack of emotional vocabulary. Parenting at this time requires great patience. But being responsive can look like the following; your four-year-old daughter cries inconsolably. A responsive parent can guide the child to a safe, non-public area. They can help her to calm down, and offer the child words to describe how she might be feeling. “You sound angry and frustrated. Is that right?” Not only will it help deescalate the child’s heightened emotions, but it will also offer invaluable practice for dealing with emotions in future social settings and interactions. Research supports that five-year-olds who have had more experience with understanding emotions - their own and others - and with taking others’ perspectives have a greater sense of gratitude. Giving is a natural outgrowth of gratitude. When we feel we have abundance, we are more willing and eager to give. That is as true for young children as it is true for adults.
In addition to being responsive to a child’s emotional needs, parents can support young children in experiencing the true joy of giving by offering guidance in several ways.
Promote a giving mindset by creating family habits of gratitude. Consider how often you get a dose of negativity whether it’s announced on the radio news or by a fellow parent in the pick-up line at school. Negativity seems to come at us throughout the day whether we go looking for it or not. It’s easy to take for granted the abundance in our lives in the rush of our days, but gratitude is the surest way to overtake feelings of fear and anxiety. They simply can’t co-exist.
Consider a daily routine in which you might insert grateful thinking. Do you eat breakfast together? Talk about your hopes for the day and what you’re looking forward to. Do you eat dinner together? Express gratitude for the food you have, the people involved in growing and producing that food and recognize the abundance you enjoy. Do you have a bedtime routine tucking in children at night? Reflect on your happy thoughts from the day. It only takes a moment of reflection but can help orient your child’s thinking to appreciation and ready him for giving.
Model appreciation for family members. If you want to positively influence other family members’ behaviors whether it’s a child or a partner, recognize the ways they contribute to your family life. Use “I notice…” language and be specific. “I notice you placed the dishes in the dishwasher without my asking. That’s taking responsibility for yourself!” With siblings, ask “How did you observe your sister being kind?” to promote reflection on each other’s positive acts. Comments in which you recognize and appreciate family members’ actions will also contribute to a grateful mindset in your home.
Practice perspective-taking and empathy. Gift giving that truly considers what the other person might like involves perspective-taking. If you celebrate a holiday that involves gift giving this season, use the opportunity to practice perspective-taking. “What might Grammy like?” Think aloud with your child and ask directly as you go through your own list. Guide by articulating Grammy’s interests and talents. Follow through by involving your child in shopping and giving the gift so that she participates in the whole process. Imagine along with your child Grammy’s face when she opens your gift - “How will she feel?” This helps your child practice and develop empathy.
Practice gift giving and receiving. Since play is the central vehicle for young children’s learning, creative role playing offers the chance for adults to adequately prepare children for giving experiences. After you talk about what Grammy might like, ask your child if she might draw a picture of it. Wrap the drawing together and pretend to give it to Grammy. Then, trade roles, pretend your child is Grammy and give the drawing gift to your child. What will she say? Consider the fact that children will receive gifts they don’t like or already have. Why not give them some practice in receiving any gift graciously? Making an enjoyable game out of the practice of giving and receiving can prepare a child for any circumstance.
Engage your child in helping. Consider small ways your child might contribute to the maintenance of your home. Can he hold the dust pan while you sweep the dust into it from the floor? Can she help you load the washer with some assistance? Offering your young child opportunities to demonstrate she can authentically contribute to your family allows her to take responsibility and feel a sense of competence and giving to your household.
Focus on the love put into the gift. With the deluge of holiday catalogues coming in the mail each day, it’s easy to focus on the “stuff" of the season. When considering gifts for others, ask your child how he might show his love for Daddy. Gifts that come from the heart are typically free, homemade or inexpensive so help your child find ways to create thoughtful presents that can serve as keepsakes for loved ones. Consider recording an interview between your child and a Grandmother, making a frame for a special photograph or guiding your child to draw a picture of your family.
Reflect on giving experiences. After gifts have been exchanged and you have a moment without time pressures, reflect on your experience. “How did Daddy feel when he opened the gift you got him? And what did you feel when you opened the train set you were hoping for?” If your child had a positive experience, she may relish in the opportunity to talk about and savor the experience. Ask, “Why do you think it feels so good to give?” encouraging your child to consider not only the joy of getting but the intrinsic joy of giving.
Extend generosity to strangers. In order for children to learn that they are a part of a greater community, they need a role in contributing to it. Find small ways to involve the whole family in giving in your community whether its canned food for the local food drive or collecting warm scarves and mittens for a homeless shelter. That service opportunity will expand a child’s sense of home beyond his house and into a far wider circle of friends.
Ultimately, we want children to learn that giving is about how they express their love and care for others whether it’s a family member, a friend, a community member or a perfect stranger. Offering young children many small chances to think about others, to plan what they will give and to feel the pride and joy that comes with giving will give them the experiences they need to become generous.
This piece is part of the Parent Toolkit’s Week of Giving. Click here to read more inspirational stories.