We recently shared a blog for World Kindness Day, and much of the neuroscience around kindness is mirrored in giving. Giving is an act of kindness.

Christmas is synonymous with giving. Yet, many conversations with children around this time will include asking them if they have sent their list to Father Christmas. And so, it can be easy for our children to become focused on the receiving rather than the giving.

It is wonderful to be on the receiving end of a gift – well mainly, although you might disagree if you receive a hand-knitted jumper (perhaps like the ones received by the Weasley brothers in Harry Potter).  However, from a neuroscience perspective, the greater joy comes from the giving.

Why is giving so good for you?

Giving (whether it be a gift or helping through giving our time and energy) improves our mood.  When we give, we trigger the release of oxytocin (the feel-good chemical that is often linked to new mothers bonding with their babies). Oxytocin helps us to feel connected. We know that when we feel connected, we are creating positive interactions, and these positive interactions promote the release of further feel-good chemicals in the way of serotonin. Serotonin helps us feel happy and calm.  Definitely something we need a good dose of over the Christmas period! Even better news – serotonin and oxytocin both counteract the effects of the stress hormone, cortisol.

Christmas can create stress, pressure and tension in families. Expectations can be high, especially amongst our children. Traditions, gift giving, Santa and all the other Christmas trimmings differ from family to family and can leave parents feeling overwhelmed and children feeling like they are missing out.

Change the Focus

The last couple of years were difficult and we had hope that Christmas 2022 would be better – it seems Christmas 2022 had different ideas and has brought new worries to many households – we won’t list them here, we’ll leave those to other blogs… What we know is that if we can shift our focus, we can also change our mood and the way we are able to respond to the extra stresses that we are encountering. We can cope better and even be more creative in our solutions.

Focus on Giving

Imagine if the focus for us and our children was not on the number of presents under the tree but on ways that we could give!

Introduce a Kindness Elf/Kindness Advent Calendar

Some of you will know the joy (or pain!) of Elf on the Shelf – you might even be questioning the wisdom of entering into this particular Christmas tradition (if you’ve just remembered you need to move said Elf, you’re welcome!). It seems the focus of these elves is to spread mischief, entertain your children, increase your stress and – perhaps – report back to Santa. You could choose to upgrade your elf this year (if you have them) to Kindness Elves.

Or alternatively introduce a Kindness Advent Calendar.

The concept is the same and a google search of either will provide you with resources to get you started.  In essence, you create a list of things to give or do that help others in your community.

Here are some examples:

  • Select a toy to give away
  • Write letters to grandparents
  • Buy food for the food bank
  • Take a meal to a family
  • Give flowers to a loved one
  • Play a siblings favourite game
  • Scrape ice of a neighbour’s car
  • Buy coffee for someone
  • Buy a Christmas gift for a family who are struggling

Identify Strengths

This is an opportunity to increase your children’s self-esteem and to recognise the strengths that they have.  What are their strengths and talents? How could they use these as a gift to others? Perhaps they can play the piano or sing – and they could offer to do this in a residential home. Perhaps they are wonderful artists or creative and can make Christmas cards or decorations to give as gifts. Perhaps they are budding bakers and can bake cakes to give to neighbours. Not only will they be giving but you can also recognise and encourage them in the things that they are good at which helps to build confidence and self-esteem.

Whether you are giving of your time, your money or other resources, the act of giving creates joy for both them as the giver and for the receiver. The more we give, the more we want to give – our brain is wired to notice the pleasure of giving as we feel the benefits of the rewards of those feel-good chemicals.

When we encourage our children to meet the needs of others, we are changing their focus from receiving and helping them to experience, and also appreciate, the joy of giving. As they give – receive the pleasurable feedback through this chemical response – they begin to change their neuropathways (the wiring in their brain) and will become ‘addicted’ (in the best possible way) to the joy of giving.

What will you do to promote the joy of giving in your family this year?

An Elf is not required – it might start with a conversation and identifying who in your family or your community would really appreciate a little extra help or support this year.

Small change, small steps, small acts – you may be surprised by the difference these make for those around you – and you will give your children the best gift of all, the gift of giving!

Many families will be struggling at Christmas, if you find yourself in need, here are some links to support (equally, if you are looking to support any charities this year as part of your giving, these may be of interest):

FAMILYLINE – If you’re feeling under pressure, you can contact FamilyLine for FREE emotional support, guidance, practical advice and information. We are open Monday to Friday, 9am to 9pm for anyone aged 18 and over. Call 0808 802 6666, Text 07537 404 282, Email familyline@family-action.org.uk

Trussel Trusthttps://www.trusselltrust.org details of food banks and emergency support for families

Young Mindshttps://www.youngminds.org.uk young people’s mental health support