Giving and Receiving: An Opportunity to Support Social and Emotional Learning Over the Holidays

by Elizabeth Sautter

The holiday season is in full force with many social and family events to attend, not to mention winter break with children out of school for an extended time. Not surprisingly, I often think about how this is the perfect time to embrace and practice social learning. It can add to the fun when you sprinkle in a little social learning along with the holiday cheer.

Here are a couple of ideas:

Giving the Gift of Time and Togetherness

It’s easy to get swept up in the ever-present consumerism this time of year. Branding companies succeed in making us consume way more than we need (or even really want). Instead, I suggest building perspective-taking skills by giving non-material gifts. To do this, the giver needs to consider what another person would find meaningful and/or fun. Experiential gifts, such as movie passes or tickets to a show or special place (e.g., amusement park) can double as quality time with loved ones.

‚ÄčA friend reminded me about this cute Advent Calendar idea: Instead of daily edible treats leading up to a special holiday, it has tiny cards with notes and photos on them to represent activities and special experiences. Examples include reading a book together, driving around to look at lights, having hot chocolate, and doing a puzzle together.

My friend changes some things from year to year, according to her children’s’ ages and favorite activities. She also makes sure to include at least one activity each week that turns the focus to others, such as taking pet food to a local shelter, making and delivering gifts to neighbors, or wrapping gifts for a children’s charity. Giving time and aid to others not only feels satisfying, but it’s also known to reduce stress.

It’s the Thought that Counts

When your child expresses interest in picking out, making, or even buying gifts for others, your hard work in building empathy skills is paying off.

My son is 15 and, even though teens are definitely not easy to live with, he is making a big effort this year to earn money on his own and buy gifts for us. He even relied on perspective-taking skills and realized we would prefer that he donate in our names rather than give us a material gift. He decided to donate to the World Wildlife Fund (which we have done in the past). For his donation, he gets to pick out animal socks for each of us that will go into our stockings. He was not just using social thinking skills but also planning ahead and using executive functioning to get jobs to earn money! Holiday miracle, or maybe it was all the time and hard work dedicated to building these skills paying off. Either way, it’s great to see!

Even very young children can make gifts. These could be drawings or collages for each family member, or notes that they can dictate to you and then decorate. Or, help them bake cookies, paint a picture, or make a craft—it gives them a taste of the excitement of giving something from the heart.

If you take a child to shop for a sibling, friend, or teacher, use it as an opportunity to practice perspective taking. What kind of item would that person enjoy? it’s helpful to use the Social Thinking ® idea of “person file” to come up with the perfect gift:

Learning to be a Gracious Receiver

Understanding why and how to be gracious is a powerful life skill, especially when receiving a non-preferred gift. This is at the heart of perspective taking, to understand the giver’s intentions and mask your disappointment in order to protect the giver’s feelings.

As adults, we have learned how to be gracious in awkward situations—like when you receive a hideous sweater that your aunt thought would bring out your eyes—where the thought behind the gift was wonderful, but the execution didn’t quite hit the mark. It can be helpful to teach this skill at a young age to prevent awkward situations. It’s important to prime children with examples of how to receive gifts graciously, such as by saying, “thank you so much” or “oh cool!” (and practice BEFORE the gift is given, perhaps in the car on the way to the holiday party).

Receiving non-preferred gifts creates uncomfortable feelings, so the skill of managing that discomfort while expressing gratitude can be tricky but can go a long way towards preserving everyone’s holiday joy. Then it’s also important to let your child know that it’s ok to express disappointment at a later time away from the giver.

Ugly sweater situations are an excellent reminder of the value of teaching children how to both give and receive gifts. Giving well comes from putting yourself in another person’s shoes and imagining what they’d love to receive. And being gracious when receiving gifts also comes from thinking about the other person, how they’ll feel based on your response, and what they intended when they chose the gift.

Gift-giving that focuses on social and emotional learning can help instill a sense of the joy of giving to others. It can build closeness and happy memories as kids learn to look outside of themselves and to share their love with friends and family.


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