Written by Jiovann Carrasco, LPC-S
Every year we have a tree trimming party the day after Thanksgiving with my brother’s family. We all get in our pj’s to decorate the tree with holiday music, food, games, and then we all pile onto the couch to watch a Christmas movie. It’s usually Christmas Vacation, but this year we watched Elf. I love this night more than any other time all year.
The next morning, my three year old broke my heart a little. She said, “Daddy, where are the presents? There are no presents under the tree.”
It’s not even December! When did she start thinking about presents? This will be her fourth Christmas, but it’s the first one where she began to associate the holidays with getting presents. It’s a critical year. Time to reassess. How am I reinforcing this message? And this got me thinking of how we reinforce the holiday gimmee gimmee’s as a society. How can we prevent the gimmee gimmee’s from turning our sweet angel babies into greedy, bratty assholes?
Let’s start with the Christmas list. When we ask kids to make a list of the things they want, we are already priming their little brains to want and expect. They tend to get obsessed with the items on their list and can talk non-stop about them. Parents sometimes use this as a bargaining chip, or as leverage to inspire good behavior. Parents, you have to admit this is low hanging fruit. I can understand the desire to make your kids happy. I love it when my kids are happy! But is this really happiness?
The Neuroscience of the Gimmee Gimmee’s
When a want is satisfied, pleasure centers in our brains are activated and the neurotransmitter dopamine is released, causing a temporary state of “happiness.” There are many things that can trigger dopamine release, like winning a competition, or taking opiates. There is an intense feeling of elation initially, but sooner or later that feeling begins to wane. And if we become dependent on that feeling, it’s easy to create an addiction. I’ve known children who act a lot like junkies when it comes to Christmas presents. After all the excitement of unwrapping presents and playing with those shiny new toys for a few hours, they can fall into a state of boredom or malaise. What now? We all want to feel good. But is that true happiness?
So if the holidays are not about dopamine release, what is it about? I can’t answer that for you and your family. But if it was about love, family connection, compassion, and peace, how do we teach to these values in an intentional way? I say, lose the list making. Because the list is all about the getting. And if you have a list to go by, you don’t have to put much thought into the gift besides whether or not you can afford it. The giving is then reduced to satisfying wants, or in extreme cases, feeding addiction.
Instead, give mindfully. My brother is starting a new tradition with his kids. He says, “They have enough shit. What they need is more quality experiences.” So instead of buying more shit, he’s going to buy tickets to fun family events, recreational adventures, and things they can all do together as a family, which fosters connection and playfulness and sends the message that he actually wants to spend time with his girls. What message does a video game send? (Cue shoot ‘em up sounds emanating from behind a closed bedroom door.) I’m not saying you shouldn’t get your kids video games. Just think about what your gift communicates.
Goodwill Toward Men
The holidays are the perfect time to model goodness and compassion for fellow humans. Of course this isn’t the only time of year to be charitable, but the opportunities are plenty. Have a discussion with your kids about those less fortunate and see if they can come up with ideas about how to help in their own community. Allow them take ownership of it to really experience the joy of giving.
Some examples might be:
1. Volunteering at a soup kitchen
2. Visiting a nursing home to sing carols
3. Deliver canned goods to a local food bank
4. Make bag lunches to hand out to panhandlers
5. Donate toys they no longer play with to a children’s shelter
6. Bake cookies to deliver to the children’s hospital
7. “Adopt” a needy family and have them help you shop for needed supplies
You get the idea. And I can already hear the objections: “That sounds great and all, but when on earth are we going to find time to do all that?” We all have the same 24 hours each day. We will put our time and energy into whatever it is that we prioritize. And your kids pick up on that. So if you don’t make the time, why should they care?
Foster an Attitude of Gratitude
Coming off the heels of Thanksgiving, this should be a familiar concept for most kids. We teach our kids to say “Thank You” pretty early on, but it may take a few years to really know what that means. For example, I have to prompt my 2-year-old son to “Say ‘Thank You’,” and he will parrot me, but he’s only doing it to get my approval. But my almost 4 year old can actually identify a positive experience and make the connection that someone was responsible for it. So I could ask her, “Is that a good cookie?” And when she nods enthusiastically, I can say, “You’re Aunt Mandy made those.” And then she’d cry out, “Thank you, Aunt Mandy!!” She gets it.
Make it a point to have your kids make “Thank You” notes for every present they receive. Have it be a fun-filled, messy activity that they will look forward to each year. Emphasize the importance of letting others know how much you appreciate their gift. Or, if you have older kids, have them make a video “thank you” to share with relatives online.
You can foster gratitude all year long with a gratitude jar. Decorate a large mason jar or coffee can with your kids and each night they write on strips of paper something they’re grateful for. Then once or twice a week you pull them out and read them aloud at the dinner table.
Like charity, gratitude is a year round activity. But during the holidays when advertisers are sending the message: YOU NEED THIS. YOU MUST HAVE THIS! Our dopamine filled brains don’t stand a chance without a deeper sense that, really, I have all I need. I’m good. And that’s true happiness. When you realize that what you have is plenty, happiness is more like a deep knowing rather than a fleeting feeling.
Wishing you all TRUE HAPPINESS this holiday season! It’s never too late to start undoing those gimmee gimmee’s.
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Here you will find articles contributed by members of our team. We hope to provide helpful information here to inspire mindful living and general wellness. The information provided here is not a substitue for professional mental health advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need to speak to a professional regarding your mental health, please make an appointment.