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December 08th, 2015

“I have enough toys Mummy.”

It is only a few weeks before Christmas, the season of gift-giving, and I am, like many others, thinking about how to give gifts of meaning, that the recipients will really like. At this point I quite enjoy the process and am delighted if I think I’ve got it right. Closer to the date the thought process may become less deep as I scramble to get everything done –it may become “this will do for the brother-in-law won’t it?”

I heard three stories in the last few days that made me think about gifts, the thoughts behind giving them and receiving them. One was amusing and one appalling and the last one generated the kind of ‘aww’ moment that signifies Christmas for the sentimentally-minded like me.

The first was a story I heard on the radio. The presenter laughingly told a story against himself as a child when his brother had given him a tee shirt which for some reason didn’t hit the mark. He received the gift half-heartedly and when his cousin said he liked it the intended recipient happily offered it up! Apparently he was in big trouble and was accused of having ‘ruined Christmas’.

Closer to home my large family have operated a Kris Kringle system for years drawing names out of a hat to see who will buy just one gift on behalf of the whole family for one family member, with an upper limit on expenditure. My niece who is in her twenties decided that this year she wouldn’t be part of this family tradition. When asked why she explained that the previous year her (not very well off) aunt had given her a gift that was ‘below value’ so she didn’t see the point of it!

In stark contrast a friend of mine recently posted in Facebook about a conversation with her youngest where she asked her 3 year old what she wanted from Father Christmas. She was surprised when her daughter said ‘nothing’. Her mum checked and her little girl confirmed that she didn’t need any more toys because she ‘had lots already’. You all want to know what that Mum’s secret is, don’t you? Well she doesn’t know herself but it prompts the question, how do we raise our children to be less focused on ‘things’ when we live in a materialist culture? If the first two stories made you cringe it may be that you would like to raise children who place value on matters other than possessions and who interpret gift-giving without reference to the price tag. Maybe you’d like your children to be grateful for what they’re given.

Research shows that materialism is linked to gambling, debt, marriage conflict and decreased happiness. If you want to encourage your children to be less materialistic and more appreciative two ideas come to mind:

  1. Take the focus off material things in your family generally
  2. Develop gratitude practices 

Having a non-material focus in the family means:

Using non-material rewards

Professor Marsha Richins (Professor of Marketing, University of Missouri) has made a study of materialism and concludes that offering things as rewards and removing them as punishments can contribute to an association between possessions and a sense of accomplishment or achievement. This can morph into ‘I need things to feel good about myself’.

Instead when your child does something good

  • always acknowledge it with Descriptive Praise
  • point out the intrinsic benefits of the behaviour/achievement. For example if your child gets up to the next level in a reading scheme point out what great stories she’ll be able to read. Never give additional rewards for winning a match or getting a good grade. These are rewards in themselves. (The promise of such rewards doesn’t motivate kids to perform better.) Instead encourage your child to enjoy the feeling of achievement and pride.
  • when you do use rewards to acknowledge good behaviour make sure your rewards are non-material. Get creative. The best way to reward children is by spending time with them –play games, cook, dance, listen to music, get silly, dress up, go to the park, go bike-riding or roller-blading or go to a café (more for the conversation than the food or drink).Rewards should be about shared experiences, not stuff.

 

Emphasising other values

Values are caught, not taught. This means that children adopt the principles upon which they live their lives by reference to what they see done in their families. So if you hanker after the latest gizmo to hit the shops and pre-order or queue for days for the latest device you can expect your children to want to buy things too. If shopping has become a leisure activity for you and you suggest a day of ‘retail therapy’ as a way of spending time with your kids then they will also value shopping.

  • get clear about the values you want to pass on to your kids
  • talk about what your values are and point out examples of them. For example if you want your children to respect difference then speak respectfully about other people’s cultures or other points of view or lifestyles.
  • model what you want to see. So if caring for others less fortunate than yourself is a value for you then let your kids see you giving money to charity or helping out with your time.
  • involve the children. Some families make giving a regular part of their lives by operating a tripartite pocket money system. When the child gets pocket money a portion goes into one jar for spending, another portion goes in to a second jar for saving and the third part goes into a third jar for giving. If you’re buying a gift for your child to give make sure they are part of the process of choosing and wrapping, if not paying, or their experience of gifts will be more about receiving than giving.

What conversations are you having with your children in the lead up to Christmas? Is it ‘what do you hope Father Christmas will bring you’ or ‘what do you think Grandpa would like’? What limits should you put on your own Christmas spend? Will you give the message you intend if your child receives many, many gifts from you?

3 practical ways of encouraging gratitude are:

Keep a gratitude book

Many families keep a book in which they record things for which they are grateful. Record 3 things that made you happy that day.  Studies have shown that kids who focused on blessings for just two weeks reported feeling more gratitude, more life satisfaction, more optimism and were more positive even months later.

Model appreciation of things and people.

Say thank you of course (even if a gift is a bit bizarre) but also talk about being grateful for what you have and the people in your lives. Appreciate small things.  “I love the way Daddy always checks with me if I need anything when he’s going up to the shops –that’s really thoughtful” “I love these crisp autumn days when the leaves are so colourful.” “I love the way Auntie Sally makes my favourite dessert when we go there for Sunday lunch. That makes me feel very cared for.” “These tools were expensive so I need to look after them carefully by oiling the blades so they don’t rust and putting them away carefully.”

Acknowledge appreciation

Notice when the children are appreciative and comment on it  -“When you say thank you for the dinner I made I feel really appreciated.” “When you say thank you for driving you to Kim’s house it makes me feel that you don’t just take the things I do for you for granted.” 

Appreciate what they do with Descriptive Praise. “I really love it when you do what Daddy asks you to do quickly. Now we have time for two stories! “That’s sensible that you’ve put all the lids back on your felt pens. That way they won’t dry out.” Or dropping a thank you note into a lunch box or school bag or on their bedside table or pillow for them to find. Or maybe a text message for an older child.

Wishing you the gift of a happy and peaceful Christmas with your families where you really appreciate each other.

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