Kids are more primed for receiving than giving as the year wears down. They’re simply too hyped about Christmas and Hanukkah presents. Still, winter holidays tend to stress the virtue of giving, which require emotional intelligence—the ability to recognize someone else’s emotions while managing one’s own. That means the holiday season is the perfect time for parents to lean into lessons that help kids amp up their emotional intelligence, and have fun doing it.
“Emotional intelligence gives a child a huge advantage,” says Michele Borba, author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. Kids with emotional intelligence have better friendships and experience less conflict, she says, ultimately leading to better test scores and jobs. “It’s the gateway to empathy—and empathy in action, which is compassion.”
Gratitude is a great place to start. With all the gift giving this winter, there will be ample opportunities for children to practice being grateful via thank you cards or video calls with relatives. The emphasis, Borba says, is on “practice”. Because at first, the youngest children probably won’t understand gratitude, or how saying “thank you” shows it. To help, parents can couch gratitude in telling their littlest kids to imagine how it can make other’s feel. “When you write the thank you card, ask a child to imagine Grandma is going to the mailbox and she receives this thank you,” says Borba. “Ask how they think she’ll feel. Anticipate the gratitude.”
If relatives will be present during present presentations, Borba encourages parents to role-play displays of gratitude with their children. “Practice ahead of time,” she says. “They may not be excited, but ask them to think about the person giving the present and how they’ll feel if they know they’re disappointed.” For smaller kids this can be accomplished as a game in which they receive pretend presents from stuffed animals (at the risk of offending Tickle-Me-Elmo).
But emotional intelligence is also about recognizing the joy of generosity. Parents can help their kid experience this joy by getting them involved in giving. Borba suggests starting small, with a game that’s sort of like a favor-based secret Santa. Each family member secretly picks the name of another family member from a hat, and then does something nice for that person. It might be taking out the garbage for dad, or picking flowers for mom. Nothing is bought or sold. If actual gifts are exchanged between family members, Borba says, do so with all due reverence. “It becomes a very special occasion and not the mayhem that is the usual,” she says.
After focusing on generosity at home, parents can gradually move children in the direction of helping the world at large. Parents can help their children find needy neighbors and think of ways to brighten up their lives. The exact nature of the charitable act is less important, Borba stresses, than ensuring that children witness the fruits of their good deeds. “In person is always better than dropping the box off and not seeing the impact,” she explains.
Beyond the neighborhood, kids can turn to local religious charities, help serve meals to the homeless, or even take up a cause that’s national or international. Either way, their initial forays into charity should be intimate, and allow the children to see concrete impacts.
“Keep it going 365 days a year,” Borba urges. “We don’t want kindness to be a three-day affair.”