How to Foster Empathy and Gratitude During the Holiday Season

Ho Ho Ho! Merry Christmas! Ah, 'tis the season for oversized sweaters, hot cocoa, red wind swept cheeks and Hallmark movies. It's also that time of year when children young and old start wondering what Santa or their parents might put under the tree for them come Christmas morning. While the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping is real and exciting, how can we make sure we are also fostering an environment of empathy and gratitude with our children during the holidays?

I think this is a hard question to tackle: I was raised in a family that was more or less financially well-off and my siblings and I never worried about what would be under the tree come Christmas morning. My husband, on the other hand had a humbler upbringing and did not always have the "picture perfect" Christmas morning experience as a child.

At this time we currently have no children, but every holiday season the question arises: How will we do Christmas when we DO have kids? Although I am a believer that family experiences trump physical presents, my husband really likes the idea of having a tree full of gifts underneath it to happily be plowed through by eager children. I may be biased: because as my husband states, "You were raised differently, you ALWAYS had gifts." And it's true. I can't deny that. But what I remember even more than the specific gifts I received is spending time with my family and how attentive my parents were all morning.

Regardless of however Christmas morning may pan out in your home this year, there are great lessons and family values that can be harvested that extend, not only for one day, but all year round such as empathy and gratitude. Children do not usually start understanding empathy until they're eight or nine—but children under five sure do know when they're being treated unfairly. As their parents, you'll be able to cater to your child's cognitive skills and mold different examples based on what your child can understand.

Some ways to exercise empathy with your child during the holiday season:

  • Label feelings (use examples such as, "It was very nice of you to share your toy with Stevie. He looked a little lonely playing by himself" or "It made your sister sad when you took her toy away without asking.") Labeling feelings helps kids learn the different emotions they are feeling as well as spot these emotions in other people.

  • Validate "big" emotions. Big emotions can range anywhere from sadness to anger and frustration. When your child shows a "big" emotion, validate their feelings so they know it's okay to feel those feelings. An example of validating your child's emotions may look like this, "I know you're really frustrated that we have to wait in this line. I'm a little frustrated too." Teach your children that it is okay to feel and express their emotions appropriately.

  • Ask them to think about others. Let's say you're at a Christmas party and your child asks for a cookie off the counter. Say, "Sure, I can get that for you. Do you think your little sister would also enjoy a cookie?" This teaches kids to be aware and cautious of others and how they may be feeling.

Some ways to practice gratitude during the holiday season:

  • Take your family somewhere to offer a few hours of community service. There's something about the holiday season that makes people want to get out and be a little more generous. While we all want to have a good holiday season in our home, parents can help foster gratitude in their children by serving alongside them to brighten someone else's holiday. Some examples of community service may look like: offering help at your local Christmas assistance programs, working at your local shelter, spending some time at a local nursing home or buying gifts for a family or child in need. You could even invite someone over for Christmas dinner!

  • Focus on family traditions. When your children are grown and out of the house, they may not always remember the gifts they received, but they will remember how they felt during Christmas as a child and the different activities you did as a family. Some may think they do not have a lot of time to spend with their children around the holidays- but, do not worry. Children who spend more time with either their mother or father are no happier, healthier or perform better in school than those who spend less time with their parents. What does matter is the quality family time that is spent together, so don't forget to put the phone down once and awhile and make the time count!

  • Focus on why the holiday season is important to you. What is it about the holidays that you want to celebrate? Is there a religious significance to why you are celebrating? Do you enjoy the holidays because it's the time of year when your family gathers together? Every family is different so discuss with your family how you would like to make Christmas special in your home and start making memories.

This is an exciting time of year for parents and children alike. May you have a magical and joyous holiday season.

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Tuesday, 07 December 2021

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