Gifts come in all sizes and forms. But whether they are big or small, most agree that it's the thought behind the giving that counts most. Being mindful about gift giving means paying attention to the whys behind the gift, looking anew at how we give, and questioning preconceived or traditional ideas of giving. Being mindful requires us to reconsider what we think we know about giving and adapt in ways that match our family's values.

Gift giving has been the subject of many studies on human behavior. Not surprisingly, it is a complex and important part of our relationships, particularly during the holiday season. Parents can help children and adolescents realize the internal rewards of giving by acting in ways that model mindful giving, talking with children about gift-giving, and using the holidays as a springboard for giving throughout the year.

The Psychology of Gift Giving

Giving a gift has meaning. It makes us think about the special people in our lives. We think about what they might like, need, or want. We consider what might bring them moments of happiness or pleasure.

We form our "giving identities" during childhood and adolescence. In many households, children are the big receivers but little is expected in return. Often, parents protect children from acts of giving, taking over the buying of gifts for other family members or simply indicating, "Oh, it's not necessary to give me a gift." This does children a disservice because learning to give fosters a belief in oneself and a sense they can make a positive difference in other people's lives.

It is the act of thinking about and choosing gifts that is of high value to the giver. If a child goes to a store, picks the first thing off the shelf, and checks a person's name off a list, they have not given much thought to the gift. But if parents encourage mindfulness about giving, they can teach children how to reap the internal rewards that gift giving brings.

There are numerous crafts, cooking projects, and handmade items that children can prepare for gift giving, some with needed parental help. By adolescence, young people have the capacity to think and act independently from their parents—to give conscious attention to and become passionate about giving. Yet in many households, teens are not encouraged to give or have not yet learned to do so.  Whatever your gift giving family traditions, it is always beneficial to revisit how your thinking has changed, and how you might like to adapt your traditions. Children should be a part of this dialog!

Giving Voice to the Gift

Parents can help children and adolescents become more mindful about gift giving simply by encouraging them to think, voice their thoughts, and then act on them. Parents have ample opportunities to ask open-ended questions that engage children in conversations about giving. When we articulate our feelings about giving, it is easier to act on those feelings.

The kinds of questions that dig deep into the meaning behind giving might include:

  • If gifts could talk, what would they say?
  • What gifts have you treasured the most? Why?
  • What is the problem with gifts?
  • What does a gift really mean?
  • What is a gift you would never return?
  • How does the meaning of gift giving change as we get older?
  • How do you measure the value of a gift?

Turning Family Values into Action

Family discussions lead to the identification of underlying values. And turning those values into action is a key to shaping young people's identities. How can your values be transformed into holiday gifts for family & friends, people in need, and giving that continues throughout the year?

Family & Friends

What kinds of gifts shared between family members and close friends are the most meaningful? Decide on gifts that will bring this meaning to you and your children's lives. Don't be afraid to make changes from previous years and adapt to changing economic times.

People in Need

Family projects that involve giving to those in need during the holidays can be turned into powerful lessons that teach compassion, empathy, and meaning to children. Do your children have gifts they have treasured over the years? How could they give those kinds of treasures to other children? Explore ways for families and children to internalize the gift of giving during the holidays.

Throughout the Year

While the holidays are the perfect time to consider and reflect on giving, children need to practice giving throughout the year. This practice teaches them about citizenship and helps them connect with people different from themselves. Encourage them to get involved in volunteer efforts where they not only learn empathy and compassion but also develop skills in planning, organizing, and strategizing to make their communities and the world a better place.


©2011 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.

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