• Wednesday, December 09th, 2015

As Christmas season explodes again, I find myself thinking of a trend I’ve noticed over the past several years.
Those of you who know me, know I am a Social Worker, and, for almost 30 years, have counseled children and adolescents. Conversation with these groups, especially the ones that aren’t exactly willing participants, is, at best, a challenge. So I fall back on “ice-breaker” questions, anything to get the conversational ball rolling…

After the holidays, I always ask two questions: “What was the best gift you got?” and “What is the gift you gave someone else that you were the most excited to give?” I have vivid memories of my very first paying job. My job was in a small woman’s clothing shop, next to two of the largest department stores in town. I had to wait inside one of them to catch the bus that would take me home, and I used my “wait time” to window shop. One evening after Thanksgiving I was browsing, turned a corner and saw the Perfect gift for my mother! It was big, bigger than I’d seen, and cost more than I’d ever thought to spend on any one person. But this was PERFECT. And, with my new wealth, I could pay for it! So the enormous spice rack went home with me, and I watched with delight my mother’s pleasure when she unwrapped it on Christmas morning. Now, 43 years later, I can still remember how it felt, and how my anticipation of her response totally overrode thoughts about what Santa had hidden for me under the tree.

It had been a tradition in our family that we children were expected to get our own gifts, and every year, I went to Woolworth’s with a $20 bill, with which I bought gifts for siblings, parents, and grand-parents. Make-up for my sister (sorry, sis!), chocolate-covered cherries for my dad, pipe tobacco for Grandad, and a game for my brother and little sister. I would plan, and budget, and then carefully wrap each one, and was proud when they were opened and I was assured this was “exactly what I wanted!”

When I first started working with kids, this seemed like a safe question-and it is one I still ask. Over the years, though, I have noticed that the answers have drifted. Initially, more often than not, I would get a story of how they had made something at school (school art classes often had special holiday projects). Sometimes, I’d have someone who painted, knitted, or crocheted- and they happily described what they’d done- sometimes bringing the “work in progress” for me to see

Gradually, however, that has changed. Over the past several years, I am increasingly answered with a shrug, an “I dunno- my folks get them gifts and put my name on it”, or a flat, “I don’t give to my family, but I bought my friend a really nice cd”. Not only that, but their recitations of the gifts they received have become more and more expensive and detailed. The sense of entitlement is very high- and these are often kids who are seeing me because they are acting out and/or not compliant with their parents’ expectations.

I don’t know exactly WHY I’m seeing this… only that I am. And I am, at the same time, seeing and hearing reports of how young people struggle with significant and deliberately malicious bullying, role models who exploit and abuse trust and power, and increased violence and depersonalization in the media and their communities. Also, I don’t believe this is the result of bad parenting-I have yet to meet a parent whose goal is to raise a selfish child, and the act of parenting has never faced the myriad of challenges it does now. I do believe this to be influenced by technology, years and years of media advertising focused on selling the “good life” and specifically target the group with the strongest “buying power” (adolescents), the increased pressure on parents to work harder to survive, let alone thrive….there are as many “reasons” as there are opinions/prejudice. But they don’t address the concern I have: that at a time in their development when a child is becoming aware of the bigger world around them, they are increasingly focused on things they are going to GET, with little thought to others.

So, having identified this, what do I think? What can parents do to help their children be more empathic and compassionate? Frankly, I think one answer is relatively easy and costs nothing. It doesn’t involve taking up a hobby, or giving up your family holiday traditions. It is, simply, to engage them in the gift planning and giving. Talk with them about what they think they would like someone to have as a gift. Ask them why they think someone would be pleased to have that particular gift. And watch as the person opens and thanks them for it. And focus just a little more on the act of giving pleasure and how that feels inside. Children love to make other people happy- feed and nurture that spirit. I have had many clients who loved going through their toy boxes and selecting toys to send to charity-clients who taught me that the act of giving was about more than the cost, but about the simple of act doing what they could. This development of empathy-the ability to understand and share the feelings of another-is important and will have long-standing effect on future relationships.

In closing I invite you to close your eyes and ask yourself…what is the gift you are most excited to be giving this year?

Happy Holidays!

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