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Tuesday, December 30th, 2014
Growing up, even though I didn’t believe in Santa Claus, I still, um, believed in getting gifts. And I had my fair share of Christmas wish lists for mom and dad. A few items that topped one year’s list included a Play-Doh machine that molded glittery butterflies, an Easy Bake Oven, and a sparkly-velvety Christmas Barbie. I actually never received any of these items, and I am grateful that my parents never gave them to me.
Instead of teaching me to expect gifts every year just because it was the expected for Christmas, my parents taught me to remember those who had helped us in some way throughout the year, and to give to them instead. In our family, this meant remembering the next-door neighbor who helped shovel our snow in winter, the family friend who dropped me off after school, and even the postman — with either fresh fruits, a homemade meal, or chocolates. My parents didn’t give generously in the lavish and expensive sense; instead, they made sure to give generously with affection and heart.
But what makes someone generous? And can generosity be developed?
The answers may lie in a recent study published online in Current Biology. Developmental neuroscientists at the University of Chicago focused on a small sample size of 57 children, ages 3 to 5, to see how the idea of generosity (or the concept of moral behavior) formed at a young age. Each child watched short animations of cartoon characters either helping or hurting one another. Afterwards, the children were presented with two boxes and 10 stickers. They had the option of placing stickers in one box for themselves to keep, or placing the stickers in the other box to share with an unknown child. In most cases, regardless of age or gender, children placed at least 2 stickers in the box for the unknown child.
Throughout the experiment, the scientists tracked and recorded the children’s brain waves and eye movement. They then compared the children’s brain waves during the watching process and the giving process. Researchers noticed that specific neural markers in the brain during both times were engaged in the same way, which indicated that even at a young age, kids had the ability to connect moral situations (helping someone) with the desire to share (being generous).
This is an encouraging study, which is on track to showing that generosity can be identified in kids who are still at an age when selfishness reigns. And if generosity can be identified, then it has the potential to be nurtured and developed as kids get older. In essence, being generous means being sensitive to the needs of others and sacrificing some time (or maybe money) to helping them.
And most parents want to raise kids who give and who understand the importance of volunteering and donating to charity. One way parents can teach the idea of giving and generosity might be as simple as asking kids what gifts they will give others for Christmas, versus what gifts they want to receive. Or it may mean emphasizing gifts that come from the heart and not from the wallet, like spending more time together, as this IKEA Spain commercial reveals. It’s always the simple, smallest things that can make the biggest impact.
‘Tis the season for giving, which doesn’t have to end with the Christmas holiday. Instead, make giving and generosity (with your time, understanding, words of encouragement, hugs and kisses) an ongoing, year-round concept.
Sherry Huang is a Features Editor for Parents.com who covers baby-related content. She loves collecting children’s picture books and has an undeniable love for cookies of all kinds. Her spirit animal would be Beyoncé Pad Thai. Follow her on Twitter @sherendipitea
Photo: Hands holding a heart via Shutterstock
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Big Kids, Child Development, Holidays, Parenting, The Parents Perspective
Wednesday, December 17th, 2014
Let me say up front that I love the holiday season as much as the next person—the parties, the lights displays in homes and elaborate store windows, the ever-present Christmas music (well, to a point), the annual watching of It’s a Wonderful Life and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. People are in a warm mood, ready to celebrate with family. The whole thing feels so festive.
But the holidays are a bit different if you’re a Jew. You might get invited to a tree-trimming party, a Christmas concert, or even caroling (though you might be more inclined to watch than to participate). You might even have a holiday tradition that seems “Christian.” In my case, the season is never complete until I’ve seen the tree at Rockefeller Center, at night, with my kids.
In the end, though, you are acutely aware that this is not truly your holiday. You have your own: Hanukkah (which started last night, by the way). It’s a nice little holiday. There is the menorah you light to commemorate the victory by Judah Maccabee, who restored worship at the temple in Jerusalem nearly 2200 years ago. There are latkes and jelly doughnuts and chocolate coins and dreidels to spin. And as Adam Sandler’s comedic Hanukkah song points out, rather than just one day we get “eight crazy nights.” Let’s be honest, though: Hanukkah is no Christmas. It’s not a major holiday on our calendar, like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover, and a host of others. Were it not for the proximity-to-Christmas timing—with the exception of last year’s Thansgivukkah—it would barely move the needle at all.
Which brings me to my daughter, Isabella. She goes to Hebrew school and loves learning about Jewish history and traditions. She is proud of her religion and loves saying the prayer as we light the menorah each evening. Yet she also desperately wants us to get a Christmas tree. She’s been asking me for years, though her persistence recently reached a new level.
My answer, reinforced by her older brother (who is not nearly as caught up in the spirit of the season as she): “No. We are Jewish. This isn’t our holiday. We have Hanukkah.” She was hardly dissuaded. She’s pointed out that we give out presents both at Hanukkah and on Christmas Day. This is true, and a concession to my wife, whose family always celebrated this way. She’s suggested we could have a little mini tree to decorate—what she has cleverly called a “tree of life,” which also happens to be the title of a popular Jewish song they sing in class.
Still, I’ve refused. I’ve explained that we have our own traditions, and that Christmas trees aren’t one of them—and never will be. I explained that wanting a tree made it seem like being Jewish wasn’t enough for her. And I asked her to please stop asking. It made me feel like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof when he disowned his daughter Chava for marrying outside the faith. Or, to cite a more contemporary example, like the Grinch before his heart grew ten sizes plus two.
Isabella gave up, sort of, but she didn’t give in. A few days later, she came home with a small branch that had fallen off at a nearby Christmas stand. She put it in water, added an “Isabella” ornament she had once been given, and put it alongside a singing snowman that her mom had once bought her. Every day on her walk home from school she scoped out more branches and added them. It was a bit pathetic—reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s droopy little tree (before its absurd transformation at the end courtesy of his friends’ decorations)—but also oddly charming.
I have to hand it to her: Isabella found a way to embrace a symbol of the season without technically going against my wishes. Call it a pine-scented loophole. I decided to let her enjoy it, her own little Christmas miracle—even though I’m sure she envisions this “tree” (like the one in her favorite ballet, The Nutcracker) growing magically bigger and bigger in future years.
David Sparrow is a senior editor at Parents and a dad of two. He knows “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” by heart.
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Monday, December 15th, 2014
This is getting ridiculous. My 8-year-old daughter Madelyn is starting to make requests of our Elf, Max, that I’m starting to think go beyond the call of Elf Duty. It first began, right after his arrival at Thanksgiving with her leaving notes next to where he was perched. Things like, When is your birthday? What is your favorite color? What is your favorite snack? Max obliged with these questions because it was cute, and he was sort of in awe that she still believed in him. But his replies only sparked more questions. And not just from Madelyn. The neighborhood kids came over to see Max’s responses and started asking about their Elves: Why is Elfie-Belfie not at Ava’s house yet? Are you friends with Bob the Elf? Why didn’t Bob move last night?
Max replied with an assortment of cleverly-thought out answers. You better be careful, my husband warned, The neighbor parents aren’t going to like being out-shined by Max. So Max replied in his Elf scrawl: Elfie-Belfie was held up in traffic; Bob has been working at overtime at the toy shop and was too tired to move….
Of course, that just made it worse and the next night Madelyn left this (see pic): Max was in over his head. What the heck could he put in that bag? How old is an Elf anyway? But more importantly, how can we keep the spirit of the Elf alive without making this a nightly scavenger hunt. (This is interfering with my binge-watching of The Affair!)
I posted this pic on Facebook and some friends offered advice: Just say Max is too tired to fill the bag; don’t answer all the questions, just some, say he loves friendship and kisses, etc. But then other friends revealed they were in even deeper with their own Elves. One had a special door for their Elf to pass through each night, another sleeps in a little house made especially for him; and yet another has to write back to her daughter’s frequent questions in teeny-tiny Elf handwriting that she started from the beginning and is now getting hand cramps.
In a way I’m glad to hear I’m not alone, but at the same time, geez. What did I get myself into? For all you Elf Haters out there (let’s hope you haven’t gotten this far in this post): It’s still worth doing. And frankly, this is likely the last year. My 6-year-old son could care less about Max (I actually don’t think he believes; he’s made a few snide remarks already: Um, why does he have a tag?) But Madelyn will be 9 next year and even though she’s now a Believer it’s entirely possible the magic will fade by then (or she’ll still be up reading and catch me in the act). So like the many other mini milestones in our children’s lives, I’m trying to enjoy this one while it is still here.
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Tuesday, December 9th, 2014
Warning: Don’t let your kids read this post!
Can you keep a secret? Here’s one I’m going to share with you: I never believed in Santa Claus.
Before you find the right emoji to express your horror and pity, I should explain that I spent the first five years of my life in Taiwan. At the time, during the ’80s, Christmas wasn’t the hugely popular or commercial holiday that it has become today. (I recently went back to Taiwan and Christmas decorations were everywhere.) Even though my family owned a small plastic tree, we never decorated it, and my parents never taught me to believe in the magic (and myth) of jolly Old Saint Nick.
When I moved to the U.S., I learned more about the red-suited man who delivered gifts via a flying reindeer sleigh. But even though I was still young enough to believe in Santa, I never thought he was real or that he existed. I never wrote letters addressed to the North Pole, I never left cookies and milk out on Christmas Eve, and I never sat in Santa’s lap telling him what was on my wish list.
All this might sound like one big #parentingfail, but I’m glad my parents never told me about Santa. Instead, I was left to discover and believe what I wanted. But I was curious: How important is it to believe in Santa Claus? To help me answer this question (and other questions I had), I reached out to Dr. Heather Wittenberg, a child psychologist/development expert and mom of four, and Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a child psychiatrist and mom of two. Here’s what they both said.
Should parents tell kids about Santa?
Dr. Heather: Santa is more of a family and cultural issue. So if Santa is an important part of the family’s rituals and traditions and stories, then it is valuable for the child to embrace that story and enjoy it for all it’s worth. But to the extent that the family is ‘meh’ about Santa, that’s fine, too. No big loss.
How should parents approach talking about Santa?
Dr. Berger: If parents want to encourage their children to believe in Santa Claus, or other culturally-sanctioned magic ideas, they can present the idea with enthusiasm and fun. The parents’ attitude can convey that these imaginary figures are not quite the same as the guy with the blue truck living across the street, that there is a special humor and excitement about an imaginary figure that is different from ordinary reality.
Should parents feel guilty about “lying” to their kids?
Dr. Heather: It’s not really a “lie” to young children who aren’t able (yet) to comprehend the difference between “reality” and “fantasy.” So for them, Santa is just another fun story (that the child sort of believes, like monsters and other make believe things).
Dr. Berger: Santa is no different from many other parts of life which look different from a child’s perspective. Joining the magic of one’s particular culture is a part of childhood. Because all small children think magically, no parent can (or should) aim to get rid of childlike magic all at once — or pretend that a 4-year-old can be a miniature scientist. All children believe in magic because they think magically.
What should parents say when kids start to ask questions?
Dr. Heather: As kids get to the age (around first grade) where they begin to distinguish between truth and fantasy, it’s okay to let the child guide the “belief in Santa” process. So if the child is suspicious and demands to know if Santa is really “real,” it’s not damaging to say “Now that you’re a bigger kid, you can see that some stories are just stories we tell because they are fun and we love them. But you’re right, Santa is just a story, and we love to have fun with the story every year. It’s still OK to make believe and enjoy it. (And please keep the secret from your friends or younger siblings who still want to believe.)”
Is it bad for children to stop believing in Santa?
Dr. Berger: Part of the slow gradual development of adult thinking is becoming more aware of reality. As children mature, they gradually give up the excitement and magic of the imaginary figure, like their favorite teddy bear; it just slowly loses importance. Instead, they transfer their sense of fun and excitement and magic to other things. However, plenty of magic remains in their heart.
Should parents worry if a child is too old to believe in Santa?
Dr. Heather: For “big kids” who still cling to the belief that Santa is real, that’s okay, too. As long as the child understands truth vs. fiction when it really matters in life, hanging onto Santa won’t hurt a bit.
So for me, I didn’t need to believe in Santa Claus to believe in the magic of Christmas. Because Christmas already is magical. And as a kid, I was spellbound by sparking lights, big red bows, pine-y garlands, colorful ornaments, and the warm golden glow that permeated every window and street corner. Everything about Christmas — candy canes, gingerbread houses, sugar plum fairies, velveteen stockings – was still magical or wonderful or memorable for me. I also spent many a Christmas at church, watching the reenactment of the birth of baby Jesus, experiencing another aspect of the magic of Christmas — one full of star-filled skies, singing angels, and the miracle of birth.
The commercial and the religious mingled, and I eventually grew to believe Christmas’s most basic message: to retain a sense of wide-eyed wonder and understand that magical moments are possible — even ones with or without Santa Claus.
Read more about Santa Claus, and Christmas:
Get into the spirit of the season with these printable Christmas coloring pages and Holiday coloring pages.
Image: Santa Claus via Shutterstock
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Child Development, Holidays, Parenting, The Parents Perspective
Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014
When I was little, I desperately wanted to see Santa Claus with my own eyes. Every Christmas without fail, I’d wake up in the middle of the night and run downstairs to catch him in the act. (Naturally, I had always just missed him!)
Kids looking to stalk jolly old St. Nick this holiday will have it a little easier than I did, thanks to Google’s Santa Tracker. This year, the site features an interactive village full of games, videos, and educational trivia. Each day in December, more games and challenges are unlocked, making the site like a digital advent calendar. Your child can learn to say “Santa” in different languages, explore holiday traditions around the world, and more. Of course, when the big day arrives, the family can keep tabs on Santa’s location too.
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