It started with a Christmas gift for my sister-in-law (or “Auntie,” as she’s called) several years ago: In trying to choose gifts for all the members of our large family, I was running out of creative ideas. I asked my then four-year-old son what he wanted to give Auntie.
“What do you think she would like?” I prompted.
“I think a set for doing fingernail art,” he said, “and some nail polish.”
This was, unexpectedly, an awesome suggestion. I took my son to Target and helped him pick out his gift; when we got home, we wrapped it and then went about the difficult business of waiting for Christmas. When he finally got to present her with it on Christmas morning, it was a huge success: My son was proud that Auntie loved his gift so much, and Auntie was thrilled that my son had paid enough attention to her preferences to guess at what she might like.
It’s normal for kids to think mostly about themselves — they’re naturally self-centered and it’s hard to get them to consider other people’s wants and needs. During the holidays, when kids are inundated with irresistible toy commercials and requests for Christmas list ideas and the threat of Santa’s naughty vs. nice list, this goal becomes monumentally more difficult to achieve.
But it seemed like I had accidentally cracked the code by asking my son to think of a gift for his aunt — one she would actually want to get. What if that’s all it really takes to raise kids who think more about giving than receiving at Christmas — handing over your shopping list to their discretion?
Every year since my son first came up with his great gift idea for Auntie, I’ve encouraged my kids to brainstorm ideas for gifts — for each other, for my husband and I, and for our extended family members. I don’t always use their ideas (sometimes they’re goofy, impractical or outrageously expensive). But more often than you’d think, the ideas are pitch-perfect. In those cases, not only have I saved some creative energy trying to think of All The Gifts myself, I’ve also reminded my kids that giving and receiving go hand-in-hand (and both can be equally satisfying).
If you’re thinking of trying out something similar with your kids to re-orient them towards giving—not getting—this holiday season, here are some tips to make your effort more successful.
1. Start close to home
Since our first attempt at this happened by accident, Auntie was our experimental guinea pig; but if your kids have never had to think of Christmas presents for other people before, I would recommend starting with siblings or parents. They know those people best, so it won’t be quite as tough for them to imagine what kinds of gifts would be a good fit. Plus, they’ll get to see the giftees using or enjoying their presents more often, which reinforces the pleasure of giving.
In our house, my sons pick out one gift for each of their siblings every Christmas. They usually know exactly what kinds of things their brothers will like, and handing out those “brother gifts” is always the very first thing my kids want to do on Christmas morning.
2. Make a list of likes
If your child is struggling to come up with ideas, it helps to have them make a list of the things the assigned person likes — activities, foods, hobbies, even their favourite colour or movie. Seeing it all down on paper can jog a surprising number of potential gifts.
For example, your kids might not be able to think of anything to give Grandma until they remember that she likes knitting and the colour purple; from there, it’s probably not too much of a stretch for them to choose some new purple knitting yarn as their gift.
3. Don’t be shy about redirecting
Yes, you want your child to feel like the gift idea was truly his, because that makes the giving vs. receiving impact really stick. But most of the satisfaction of giving comes from knowing that you’re handing the giftee a present they’ll totally love—and that might take a guiding hand from you to achieve.
It’s ok to gently (!) suggest that your child’s super weird idea of “a red baseball hat with a T-rex head on it” for his uncle be revised to something a little tamer (like maybe a baseball hat with his favourite sports team’s logo or even “World’s Best Uncle” on it).
4. Involve them in the process
Giving someone a gift isn’t just about physically handing it over — you have to pick it out, purchase it and wrap it, too. Include your child in the gift-giving from start to finish: Bring him to the store (or have him shop with you online), get his input on the actual item selection, help him work out payment, and then assist him in wrapping it before the big day.
By the time your child finally gets to present the giftee with his awkwardly taped-up package containing an item he dreamed up and (mostly) procured all by himself, he’ll have plenty of accomplishments to feel good about—and a bigger appreciation for the act of giving.