December 10, 2015 11:21 am Some Thoughts For The Holidays Ahead
As holiday time approaches and children begin to get excited and form expectations about the meaning of Christmas, Chanukah, and other celebrations, I want to ask you parents to pause and reflect on what message you are sending to your children.
Because young children are just gaining the cognitive capacity to see the world from points of view other than their own, they are naturally self-centered (“egocentric” in psychological lingo) and easily fall into an attitude of “gimme” entitlement. Advertising cleverly takes advantage of this and plays on it. Other more innocent practices in our culture inadvertently do as well. Well meaning adults ask children “What do you want Santa to bring you this year?” without realizing that part of the message that they are sending is that “Christmas is about getting what I want.” The writing of a Christmas list, a time honored tradition in our culture, sends the same message. This subtle assumption of entitlement is so ingrained in our culture that few adults would ever think of asking a child “What are you going to give to your mother, father, sister, brother this year?”
Many parents recognize the entitlement trap and instead use the carrot of holiday gifts as a way to extract a few peaceful weeks of good behavior. “He’s makin’ a list and checkin’ it twice” is more than a playful song in some households. The threat of coal in one’s stocking is a mighty motivator. Few parents actually follow through but it takes a few years for kids to figure this out. Meantime, the message is sent that Christmas morning (or Chanukah evening) is the childhood equivalent of Judgment Day when they will be accountable. Beneath this overt message is the more subtle message, inherent in all reward and punishment based parenting, that “I am loved only when I am good. If I displease my parents, I am worthless in their eyes… and therefore in my own as well.” The pervasive and long-term effects of this conclusion deserve our full attention in another column.
So, on the one hand we have the danger of encouraging narcissistic entitlement and on the other of encouraging the belief that love is contingent on good behavior and self esteem hangs on the approval of outside authority. Fortunately, these are not our only choices of ways to approach the holidays and holiday giving. The holidays give us an opportunity to communicate clearly to children that they are loved unconditionally and that gifts are the free expression of unconditional love. Gifts are neither earned nor entitled. They are a way of celebrating the joy we have in each other. Their thoughtful choice is a way of honoring the uniqueness of each individual and validating the legitimacy of individuality. They are a way of saying to children, “You, my dear, are precious to me. You have value independent of how I feel about your behavior. I cherish you and celebrate you as an individual.”
In households where Santa is part of the holiday tradition, there is the opportunity to focus on the additional message that “You are valued by more than just your family. Indeed, the world is a loving place where children are celebrated and cherished.”
With a little self awareness, we can make the holidays a time to set aside cynicism and celebrate unconditional love and, in so doing, set in motion an upward spiral that moves us, step by tiny step, closer to making this a reality in the world.
Carol Tolonen is a developmental psychologist and parenting coach. She is trained as a psychotherapist and as a spiritual counselor. She has 26 years experience teaching science and outdoor education to the children at Putnam Indian Field School.