When Pam Hopkins' daughter was 3, she was enamored with carousel horses.
"My husband took her shopping for Christmas and she picked out something for me," recalls Hopkins, a Woodinville child mental health specialist, author and mother of two. "Not surprisingly, when I opened it, it was a carousel horse. I exclaimed about how beautiful it was and turned it over in my hands while she sat grinning brightly and literally trembling. She said, ‘Do you like it?' to which I responded ‘I love it!' She then looked a little more pained, but still grinning and trembling said, ‘Can I have it?'"
Hopkins told her daughter they could share the gift, and she was satisfi ed. "While at age 3 she was able to understand the concept of gift-giving and enjoyed it, she was also, of course, still very egocentric."
Learning to give and take is a lifelong process, Hopkins says. "My thoughts are that as soon as a child can understand the concept of give and take (at about a year old), it's nice to go through the motions of giving something to a child, encouraging her to hand it back in the form of a game and saying, ‘Thank you.'"
Involving young children in gift giving encourages them to think about something someone else likes, anticipating how the other person may feel as they receive it. This develops empathy and a connection to other people, Hopkins adds.
Jean Illsley Clarke, parent educator and author of How Much Is Enough? and Self-Esteem: A Family Affair, agrees. "We are hard-wired from birth to be in connection (with other people) and in relationships," she says.
Giving and receiving gifts helps build those skills, a basic developmental job. She calls the idea that the holidays should be about the children and their receiving gifts "an unfortunate myth." As a staunch opponent of overindulgence, she believes that children gain competence from doing things themselves.
"I think it should begin at very early ages, depending on the temperament of the child," says the mother of three and grandmother of five. Even a very young child can color a wooden tree ornament or help roll a beeswax candle to give as a simple homemade gift.
"Making (gifts) is best, but you can also involve a child in buying gifts – it's trickier because they get involved in what they want, and can get distracted by marketing."
She advises staying ahead of the game, by telling the child, "We're going shopping for candles or cookie-cutters" or whatever gift it is. "Take a set amount of money in your hand, in cash, and say, ‘This is what we can spend.' You are building parameters within which a child can be successful."
Gifts don't have to be material, Illsley Clarke adds. "Sometimes the best gift is pleasure and memories." For example, children in one family she knows put on a yearly nativity pageant, taking responsibility for all of the costumes, staging and parts.
Hopkins agrees that gifts come in all forms. A gift can be bringing a parent a cool drink or writing a note of encouragement to a sibling. For the traditional kind of present, she says, "homemade items make the best gifts from young children."
"The more the child can conceive of and do it themselves, with parents offering appropriate support without taking over, the better."
Wenda Reed is a Seattle area writer. One of her favorite gift-giving memories is when her organized 7-year-old daughter finished wrapping all her own gifts, placed a table in front of her bedroom door, stocked it with wrapping paper and other supplies and put up a sign saying, “Presents wrapped; 25 cents.”