Enhancing children's lives through parent and teacher education.

Taming The Holiday Monsters

As New York begins to spread its finery like a proud peacock in preparation for the holidays, and people bustle through the streets making private preparations for Hanukkah and Christmas, many parents watch with dismay as their loving, appreciative children are slowly transformed into greedy, insatiable monsters.

Following Hanukkah last year, I spoke with a mother and father who proclaimed vehemently "We're never giving a gift a night during Hanukkah again." It seems that as the days of Hanukkah wore on, their son became more and more demanding, beginning early each day to question "Where's my present?" He pestered his parents unmercifully throughout the holiday. I experienced a similar situation last Christmas. I watched with horror as my daughter ripped open present after present, and tossed them carelessly aside (all under the watchful eyes of my in-laws, unfortunately.) Like many parents, I was left, not full of the holiday spirit and the joy of giving, but with anger, sadness, and serious post-holiday blues.

What makes our children behave this way? How can the child who was hugging and kissing and thanking you for buying him a pack of gum last week be the same child who, today, cavalierly tossed the $200 Nintendo set you bought him aside and demanded his next gift? Furthermore, is there anything we as parents can do to prevent our children from becoming monsters? Or are we consigned to altering or eliminating our holiday traditions in hopes of minimizing our children's greediness?

Fortunately, there is an explanation for our children's behavior and there are things we can do to correct it. First of all, realize that for your child, the excitement of the holidays means that the possibilities are limitless -- and perhaps the gifts will be too! With the whole world suddenly within reach, it's understandable that your child's eyes would begin to shine with excitement, and he would begin to ask about or look forward to the next gift in an overly enthusiastic manner. Recognize, too, that most children's sense of time is distorted -- even through adolescence. It's not only hard for them to delay gratification, but hard in a purely conceptual sense to understand the timing of gifts. For many children, tomorrow is forever. Likewise, waiting until Mom or Dad opens a gift and admires it takes forever as well.

While understanding where your child is coming from is helpful, I only mean it to provide an explanation for her behavior -- not an excuse. Lack of appreciation for gifts is inexcusable as far as I'm concerned, and as parents, while we can understand why our children are behaving a certain way, we should not excuse them from behaving appropriately.

Here are a few suggestions which will make your holidays more enjoyable:

* Change the label you give the behavior. Instead of labeling your children's behavior as "greedy", call it "over enthusiastic" or "overly excited" instead. Most parents have an easier time handling an overly excited child than a "greedy" one.

* Give the holiday significance. For some, this will mean explaining the religious tradition of the holiday. For others, it will mean talking in more general terms -- about why we give gifts and about love. Remember that younger children need more concrete explanations -- reading a story about the holday, acting it out themselves or with dolls will help them understand its significance. Older children can be approached more abstractly -- you can talk with them about the "spirit" of giving and the feelings which prompt us to give gifts.

* Establish a ritual for opening gifts and explain it to your child. For example, say "In this house when we open gifts, we take the paper off carefully and fold it so we can recycle it. Each person takes a turn opening their gift while everyone else watches."

* Voice your expectations to your child. Many children behave the way they do because they don't know what we expect them to do differently. For example, say "When you've opened your gift, I'd like you to look at it a few minutes and say 'thank you' to the person who gave it to you. If that person isn't here, I'd like you to wait while we write down what it is and who it's from so we can send a thank you card." Don't be afraid to tell your child (even as young as age three) that you want her to appreciate what she's been given. Use the word appreciate. Provide a definition if the child doesn't know what it means. It'll come in handy at other gift-giving times during the year.

* If your child is having trouble with waiting, recognize his feelings first. Say "You seem really excited about the holidays. It's hard to wait, isn't it?" Sometimes children continue misbehavior in an effort to make us understand their feelings. When we recognize their feelings, we are, in effect, saying, "I understand how you feel" and many times this in itself will stop the misbehavior.

* If the behavior continues and you're beginning to feel annoyed, don't be afraid to set a limit with your child, even if it is the holidays. Tell your child that you feel annoyed when he pesters you and that you'd like him to be patient. If he persists, set up a reasonable consequence for his behavior. Say "You can either patiently wait your turn for the present or you can skip your turn, what would you like to do?" Just be sure that you don't make an empty threat like "Be patient or we'll throw the rest of your gifts away." You won't feel good about that choice and neither will he. He'll probably rebel or throw a tantrum, and you'll end up giving in to keep the peace because, after all, "it's the holidays." There's no lesson for your child in that and you probably won't prevent the holiday blues for yourself either!

If you keep these points in mind, I can, with confidence, wish you a Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and a joyful holiday season!