Most parents say they want their children to understand the "values" that are part of their holidays, including generosity and sharing with those less fortunate. But instead, many children experience the holidays as a time to create lists of all the material goods they covet. Parents often feel helpless to manage their child's expectations, even when they wish their child would focus more on giving than getting. 

This is exacerbated by toy companies, who spend fortunes on TV ads designed to induce cravings for more, more, more in our children. It’s our job as parents to protect our kids from this advertising assault, and to teach them the deeper meaning of the holidays. This isn't just so kids become more generous, but also because it is better for their emotional health.

But these lessons can't be taught by lecturing. Research shows that kids become more generous when they experience how good it feels to be generous. So our job is to give them opportunities to notice that feeling.

I know, your child probably doesn't think it feels good to "give" or "share." But that's because we don't usually let them choose to share; we make them share. No one likes to be forced to give something up. But all humans, including toddlers and preschoolers, get a little jolt of feel-good neurotransmitters when they willingly give to others, presumably because humans are social creatures and it helps the human race survive when we look after each other.

So giving our children the opportunity to willingly give helps them discover how good it feels to share with, and help, others.

The holiday season is the perfect time to create opportunities to give that will be pleasurable for your child. Before you know it, he'll be discovering that it really is more blessed to give than to receive. Here are ten ideas for you to choose from. I'm sure you'll come up with more yourself!

1. Let kids experience how good generosity feels as you move through the holiday season.

Buy an extra can of whatever you're buying and let your kids donate it at checkout, if your grocery store has such a program. Wrap gloves and mittens together to donate. Give your child a set amount to spend, take them to the toy store where they can pick out a gift for a needy child, and let them personally deliver it to a shelter, hospital or charity drop-off point.

2. Start a tradition of kindness and good deeds.

Instead of the Elf on the Shelf watching your child's every move, Kindness Elves are a fun idea -- and you can make them instead of buy them. But you don't need an "elf" to start a December tradition of random acts of kindness. Just tell your child that everyone in your family is a kindness elf this month, and brainstorm a list of random acts of kindness and choose one to do every day or so, or plan them in advance on your calendar.

The calendar here was created by Shannon at Sweet Blessings; you can print it out at her website. It includes ideas like:

  • Leave quarters and detergent at a laundromat
  • Make breakfast and take it to the Fire Station
  • Make Holiday Bookmarks and hide them at the library
  • Do a chore for someone in your family.

3. Let your child play Santa.

Every year the US Post Office receives millions of letters from children saying things like "Mommy doesn't have enough money for Christmas this year...can you send us food and blankets and a backpack for school for my little sister?"

You and your child can serve as elves through the US Post Office's Operation Santa program by going to a participating post office, if you're lucky enough to live near one, and "adopting" a letter. You then read the letter as a family, buy some of the items (or substitute other items that you think would be appropriate for a child this age), wrap them for mailing, and return them to the post office with postage. The post office adds the address and mails the package. 

4. Have your child dictate thank you cards.

Ask your child to dictate thank you cards to people whose presence enriches their life all year long, while you write what he or she says. Then deliver them together, or mail them. Not only are notes like this heartwarming to the people who receive them; research shows that they make the children who write them happier -- at the time, and even months later.

5. Spread sweetness.

Work together to make pies or cookies. Let your child help you deliver your goodies to your local soup kitchen, home for the elderly, or to the firehouse where folks are hard at work on the holiday.

6. Every child deserves the pleasure of giving her own money to a worthy cause.

Try giving a little extra weekly allowance that goes in a special "charity" jar, and letting your child give it away every year at the holidays to the charity of her choice.

7. Let kids have the pleasure of making what they give.

Make ornaments or cookies as a family, and let your child enjoy giving them away throughout the month without regard to whether you're receiving something in return. 

8. Make a Santa's Workshop.

Go through the house together looking for anything you no longer use that could be cleaned or repaired and donated. Go through each child’s room with them and create a “give-away” box of gently used items to pass on to kids who need them. Have a family session to clean and repair old toys and clothes and take them to donate. (But don’t force kids to give things away before they’re ready “because others are needy.” Giving shouldn’t be painful, or it will backfire.)

9. Have a Family Charity night.

You could call it something with more resonance for your kids, like Gift for the World Night, or Tzedakah Night (the Jewish equivalent that means restoring Justice). Let your kids make a “Wish List” of all the ways they’d like to make the world a better place. Then let each person in the family choose one thing to do to address one of those issues. For instance, you might make a donation to Heifer International, plan to volunteer at your local Meals on Wheel delivering food, and make a commitment to reduce your carbon emissions by walking more instead of driving. Kids who feel they're making a positive difference in the world are more optimistic in general and feel more empowered to make a difference.

10. Volunteer as a family.

My children and I volunteered for years at a local soup kitchen, and my kids loved feeling they made a difference. It also helped when they saw a homeless person, to know that that person could go get a hot meal at “our” soup kitchen. The options are unlimited: Organize a book drive and ship the books off to Reader to Reader. Gather used coats to donate. Stuff stockings to donate to a family shelter. Sort food at a food bank. Help you deliver Meals on Wheels. Become Kindness Elves doing random acts of kindness for others.

11. Go to the roots of your tradition to talk about giving, or looking after others in your community.

Use your dinner table time during the month of December to discuss what your winter holiday means to you.  Celebrating the birth of Christ gives ample opportunity to talk about love and good deeds. Yule, or the Winter Solstice, is about celebrating the return of the light, which can extend to joyful giving. Hanukka is about rededicating ourselves to the miracle of faith, which unites us as a community. What meaning do you invest in your December celebrations? Why do we share with others less fortunate? Having these discussions as your children grow up makes it more likely that as they enter their teen years, they’ll live your values and find worthy causes of their own.