Demonstrating Gratitude on Christmas
Gratitude is about expectation management.
The holiday season brings a plethora of emotions, both good and bad. It also brings out the best, (and sometimes worst), in our children. As I parent, I know well the nervous apprehension of watching my child open presents in front of other adults. Though I watch silently, I am secretly willing him to smile and say, ‘thank you!’ for his gifts. He’s been prepped; he’s been trained; he knows what I expect. Any yet…… just smile and say, ‘thank you dammit!’
I imagine most other parents have felt similarly worried about and/or disappointed in their child’s seeming lack of gratitude. However, I have good news: your kids are not spoiled. Not spoiled, you say? Surely, I must be missing something or I am blissfully ignorant of how spoiled my child is. Yet, the research indicates otherwise. It’s not our parenting faults, (though they certainly may contribute), that causes our kids to deflate upon opening a package full of clothes. It’s simple genetics.
Gratitude is about expectation management.
All animals share a natural reward system, dopamine, which provides happiness upon feeling what the brain considers rewards and drives behavior. As adults, we’ve had years of training in dopamine management. We know how to fake it to make it. Our children are not as experienced. Their dopamine increases greatly at the excitement of a present and anticipation for a reward. However, that same dopamine plummets when our kids open a present, particularly if said present falls below imaginative expectations. That deflation is not your child acting spoiled; it’s simply his biological response to a drop in dopamine. That’s where you come in. You can’t stop your child from feeling disappointed or responding to a drop in dopamine, but you can aid in managing expectations. Talk to your kids about what is coming, social behaviors, and what to realistically expect. You can train them to hide disappointment and educate them why gratitude is important. Further, by managing expectations, if a child receives more than what he or she expected, his dopamine activity will rise and he will feel true excitement and joy, which is a great part of parenting. Animals are no different. When animals don’t get what they expect, they experience a significant decrease in dopamine. Understand this is nature at work, and your child is still grateful for what they receive, they just can’t hide a drop in dopamine like you can.
We deliberately enforce gratitude in our home. For example, the kids thank the cook at the dinner table. We allow our children to be bored because boredom is a luxury. It is their creative time. Even further, the best way to teach gratitude is by setting an example. I make an effort to display my appreciation in front of my children overtly.
But, having said all of that, my child still slumps upon opening a letter without money or a package full of clothes. Gratitude is deliberate. Gratitude is a skill. It is important to enforce it at every opportunity, and managing expectations is the best way to avoid a tragic dopamine dump. Your child is not being ungrateful. He or she is responding to reactions inside their bodies, and that is alright. If you want to change it, you need to manage expectations. And if you think this is all monkey business. You’re not wrong.
Years ago, scientists studied the effects of dopamine on a group of chimpanzees. The chimps were placed in a cage with a lever lit by a small light. The Chimps learned to pull the lever ten times whenever the light turned on and receive a dopamine-producing reward: the raisin. The researchers measured the dopamine in arbitrary units. One raisin = 1 unit of dopamine. Most chimpanzees produced the same amount of dopamine for a raisin. Similarly, if the chimps pull the lever 20 times, the reward was two raisins, and the dopamine spike doubled to two units of dopamine, a bigger reward for the chimps. However, as the trials went on, the spikes in dopamine decreased because the previously unexpected raisins turned into an entitlement over time. Simply put, the chimps got used to having raisins and stopped feeling excitement at the prospect of getting them.
Yet, it wasn’t the actual raisins that spiked dopamine highest. The largest spike in dopamine was actually the light illuminating the lever. Anticipation drove the chimps’ behavior. The chimps felt a dopamine spike of excitement when the light turned on, indicating the chimps should pull it to receive a reward. While pulling the lever (work), their dopamine levels plateaued, but there was a second spike when they got the reward. Most interestingly, when the chimps pulled the lever 20 times but received only one raisin, dopamine did not spike; it decreased. Over time and as noted, the chimps became accustomed to the lever and pulling it for raisins, which stopped their dopamine levels from rising. Similarly, before Halloween, my son can barely contain his excitement for obtaining candy. A few weeks after Halloween, however, (and daily chocolate doses), he loses interest in candy or the prospect of eating it as a reward. The anticipation of receiving the candy before Halloween causes the highest dopamine rise, followed by the actual obtainment of candy. Once that excitement wears off, however, my son no longer feels excitement about candy, just as the chimps lost interest in raisins.
I am not saying your children are monkeys, but I am saying what children receive as a surprise turns into entitlement over time. Further, if and when children receive a gift or surprise less than what they expected, they will experience a decrease in dopamine — it is in our nature. It is in all nature. And understanding that nature is important and useful.
Don’t fight mother nature; work with her.
If you want to increase excitement, you need to increase dopamine levels. You increase those levels by building anticipation. Yes, children want to open gifts, but it’s the anticipation of opening gifts that’s the real treat. So, build on that anticipation. Have fun wrapping presents together and become creative. Secondly, don’t turn Christmas into “Consumermas.” The holiday is not about gifts despite the large dopamine spike children experience when opening presents. So, gift a lot of small items and manage expectations. Tell children they received gifts because it is tradition and take the other practices just as seriously. Gift toys that will occupy them while the adults enjoy adult time. Give gifts that work for both you and the children. Choose gifts that are novel and fun, like a fart blaster, but can be played with little adult assistance. And if your kids are still bored, – good. We are at our most creative when we are bored. Learn to love yourself and appreciate yourself, and you will never be bored again.
Gratitude naturally comes to humans when we get more than expected. So, keep your standards high and your expectations low. If your kids receive more presents than expected, they will be happy, but the real question is…how much should they expect? Demonstrate the value of time and effort it took to get the family together from miles apart. Involve your children and prepare a tree, food, and wrap gifts together. Most importantly, ask your children to contribute to the festivities by washing dishes or setting the tables. Let them see how much effort it takes to create this magical moment.
Too often as parents, we focus on creating the perfect, fun atmosphere for our children, so they want for nothing. But that builds complacency, not satisfaction. Let your kids pull the lever. Let them work for their reward and understand that by contributing they are creating the very excitement and anticipation the sight of presents bring. If you’re worried about how they’ll act when opening gifts in front of others, wrap up some household items (in secret!) and have them practice controlling their emotions while opening. Practice makes perfect, right? Most importantly, remember how you hide your own dopamine drops and show some empathy towards your little chimps when they only get half a raisin. Consider surprising them with small gifts on normal days and help them find and wrap gifts for others on big holidays. Unlike chimps, we can learn to mask our disappointment. We can also learn from our genetic responses and use them to better guide ourselves and our children. Finally, unlike chimps, we can learn delayed gratification and change our perspectives of gratitude. And for that, I am eternally grateful.