12 Ways to Boost Kids’ Empathy During the Holidays and Build Fun Memories

by | Dec 16, 2017 | Character and Moral Intelligence, Emotional Intelligence, Empathy and Kindness, Gratitude, Materialism, Parenting, Selfish and Spoiled, Social Emotional Learning

How to Tone Down $$$, Tune Up Family Memories and Nurture Children’s Empathy During the Holidays

REALITY CHECK: Total spending is projected to be between $678 billion and $682 billion, up from $655.8 billion last year. Nationally, holiday spending has increased annually since 2009 and has experienced a steady stair-step increase ever since. But there’s a hidden danger for our children. Research shows that when kids think about “things and not people,” their empathy quotients lower. 

Tired about all those ads reminding your kids what they “must have” and your kids are now repeating those jingles?

Concerned your kiddos are preparing a wish list so long they’ll be disappointed no matter how many presents they get?

Noticing the spirit of the season at your home is more “gimme, take me, buy me,” instead of  “Deck the Hall?”

Worried that all those gifts you’ve spent hours picking out will be unwrapped in a nano-second come Christmas morning?

If your holiday has spun a bit out of control and gotten away from the true spirit of the season, there’s still time to rein in the gimmes. Now I’m not suggesting you do a complete about face and cut out the presents altogether. Every kid will be out waving white flags. But there are more subtle ways to encourage your kids to appreciate the greatest gifts of the holiday season.

The simplest way is to focus on “gifts of the heart” and letting your kids be participants, not just recipients. Not only will your holidays be more fun, but you’ll also be using those experiences to cultivate empathy in your children.

Here are 12 ideas to tone down the spending and boost those holiday memories:

1.Focus on Family Experiences

Minerva Drive is “the” street to go during the holidays in my town. It is three blocks ablaze of lights and looks like a “winter wonderland” except it’s in Palm Springs. The photo is just a sample of what those homes look like. Amazing! The evening drive to “see the lights” is on every kids’ –as well as their parents–wish lists. It’s a family  memory!

Are there other holiday memories you can do as a family that will linger long after the kids have forgotten what they unwrapped?

The best memories come straight from the heart — and not your wallet. Here are a three ways:

~ Create a special Christmas Teddy Bear Tea. Your little one bring their teddy bears and order hot cocoa at a nice restaurant or in front of your fireplace! Don’t try this with your teens — but it is glorious with younger ones.

~ Hold an ornament exchange with friends. Everyone brings in an ornament and exchanges it for another. Just put a price limit on those ornaments. One year we set out a table and had everyone decorate their ornaments. Fun!

~ Have a cookie exchange! (My favorite – since I hate baking). My friends and their kids each bring pre-baked or ready to bake cookies. We spend the afternoon decorating and eating and enjoying each others’ company and each family ends up with cookies to bring home. (Feel free to purchase already made cookies and just have the kids decorate those).

2. Carol With the Neighbors

Give every family member an empty toilet paper tube with wax paper wrapped tightly to the top and attached with a rubber band. Kids can decorate them with a bit of glitter, stickers, or colored markers and they make instant kazoos! If you want to go wild, give each child a paper bag or paper plate and encourage them to design a holiday hat. Invite your kids’ friends and now go caroling and help others feel the joy of the holidays.

Musical talent is not the focus-fun and memories are! And you’ll also help children experience the joy of giving (another empathy-building experience). Just bundle everyone up and start humming! It’s a memory! What other fun ways can you think of to gather your family and make memories.

3. Bring Out the Book and Films

It’s time to bring out those classics like a A Christmas Carol, Polar Express, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Not only do those books become holidays traditions, but they also elevate children’s empathy.

~ My girlfriend has a basket filled with her holiday books. Poor that hot cocoa, light the fire and read and read and read together!

~ My family spreads a blanket on the floor, gets out a hurricane lamp and has a marathon Christmas story reading session in the darkened living room. (You can always use a flashlight!)

~ My cousin’s favorite holiday tradition is to purchase one special holiday book for their family each year and then bring them out to read together. (The inside of each book also has a photo of their family during the holidays).

~ A friend started a tradition of giving each family member a book on Christmas eve. That “dinner” tradition has become the favorite holiday memory of the season.

~ My son’s friends always watch It’s A Wonderful Life every holiday. It’s hot chocolate, cinnamon sticks, whip cream, quilts, Jimmy Stewart, and a memory.

Find the tradition that works for you!

4. Help Kids Focus on Others

We too often deny kids the pleasure of doing for others. Kids are great at brainstorming gift ideas for others.

Ask them, “What have you noticed that Aunt Mary enjoys?” or “What do you think would make Grandpa happy this year?” “Mrs. Jones is all alone. What could we do to help her have a merry holiday?”

This gets kids to start considering the other person.

5. Set Limits and Go Homemade

Set a cap on the number of gifts per kid. (Do warn the kiddies ahead of time). Tell your children to think through what they really, really want and need this year. They must prioritize their wish list into their top three hopes (or whatever number you set). Young children can draw their wishes.

Then once that limit is set, make a rule that one present from each child must be homemade. Play “Secret Santa” – each family member pulls the name of one family member, and then “shhhh” (the hardest part of some) must keep the name secret.

The goal is for each child to discover (without asking) what that family member enjoys, and then somehow make a gift for that person to be delivered on a special evening.

Maybe brother Jimmy loves chocolate chip cookies – then that’s the present that his “Secret Santa” makes. Or Dad adores sleeping in on Sunday – so the coupon gift from his Secret Santa is good for sleeping in without disturbance for two Sundays. (Secret Santa and stand guard by the door). Make it fun!

6. Capture Those Great Family Moments

Always disappointed you didn’t capture some of those great holiday moments? Then appoint each child the role of official “Family Holiday Photographer.”

You may find that the photographing roles makes kids tune into the memories: “Did you get a picture of grandma?” or “Quick, take a picture of Kevin. He’s so excited with his present!”

~ You can rotate the days (Johnny is official family photographer on Dec 24; Sally is Dec 25) or the event (Johnny photo graphs gift-opening; Sally is the dinner).

~ My girlfriend gives each child an inexpensive disposable camera for the affair. I told my sons to use the photo feature on their cell phones.

~ You can also ask your tech-savvy kid to put together a fun powerpoint of all the family photos to show the day after the holidays and review the memories.

7. Give Things That Boost “Togetherness”

Empathy is always about “We,” not “Me.” In fact, self-absorption is a known empathy killer. So think of gifts you can “with” one another like board games, certificates to a movie, skating rink, tickets to a concert, exercise equipment. This may take a bit of creative thinking but tune in closer. Ask the kids. Is there something or someplace you can go to together?

8. Capture WE Family Memories

At Christmastime when I was little, I couldn’t wait to go to my girlfriend’s house and see her family’s Christmas stockings. Each sister’s stocking was covered with different little trinkets her mother sewed on, representing the girls’ interests and talents from the year. Everyone always stopped to ask each sister what the trinkets stood for.

If you like the idea don’t go trying to make up for ten years, but consider starting a tradition this year of each child’s – or your family’s – memories. Consider displaying your child’s special mementos of his special talents in a special box or a piece of colored felt. Or switch it up: create a family box for each year.

9. Start a Family Holiday Journal

What about starting a family holiday journal? Just purchase a journal that is for writing down the family memories of the holiday season. Then bring out the journal each year to display and jot down memories.

Once kids are tuned into the tradition they may begin to remind you to “add a memory” to the book. Encourage each child to sum up their best memory of the holiday by drawing, writing or pasting in a photo of the event. The key is to stress memories of the heart that they experienced — not the gifts from the store that they received.

10. Get Grandparents on Board

Pass on your new “gimme less-family memories more” policy to grandparents. (Warning: it may be a bit late this year, so aim for next year). Suggest they give presents that will nurture their relationship with their grandkids such as a trip together, a digital camera to exchange pictures, or if they really want to splurge a computer loaded with skype so they can set an appointment each week and talk.

11. Nurture a Child’s Strength, Hobby or Skill

Instead of giving a dozen items that end up in the closet, think of gifts that could nurture your child’s strength or talent like a musical instrument, art materials, or horse-back riding lessons. Maybe your daughter wants to take up knitting – then a basket with needles, yarn and a note from you-or Grandma-promising to teach her how to knit is a perfect gift. Maybe your son is interested in guitar – then give a coupon for a few lessons.

12. Be a Charitable Family – Reach Out!

Find a needy family your kids can “adopt” for the season and buy presents for; bake an extra batch of cookies for the lonely neighbor next door; go caroling to a nursing home or volunteer to shovel the snow for an inbound or elderly friend. Hands on giving experiences help kids discover a sense of compassion and caring. It can also become a fabulous family holiday tradition. You will become a Charitable Family.

There are dozens of ways to rethink the holidays so our kids can learn that the real spirit of the holidays is about Giving not Receiving. Doing so is how to help our children think “We,” not “Me.” And that’s the first step to cultivating that glorious trait of humanity called Empathy!

What are you doing this year to bring back a “Giving Spirit”?

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

For more Practical Parenting Advice follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba or refer to my daily blog, Dr. Michele Borba’ Reality Check.

Past posts you may find helpful in cultivating children’s empathy:

10 Ways to Raise a Charitable Child

Empathy Is a Verb: My TEDx Talk

6 Ways to Inspire Kids To Make a Difference

8 Ways to Help Kids Develop Caring Mindsets

7 Ways to Teach Perspective Taking and Stretch Students’ Empathy Muscles!

Join me! It’s time to start an UnSelfie Revolution!

unselfieFollow me as I share ways we can cultivate our children’s empathy, help them learn perspective taking and appreciate differences,  and switch their attitudes from WE, not ME.

The ideas and story in this post are adapted from my latest book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All About Me World. It describes how to cultivate the Nine Crucial Habits of Empathy, and offers 300 strategies parents and teachers can use from toddlers to teens to do so.

It’s time for a national conversation and to start an UnSelfie Revolution and discuss why empathy matters! I hope you join me!