Naughty or Nice: Kids at the Holidays

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Do your kids make you feel like a Grinch this time of year? From bad cases of the "gimmies" to messed-up sleep schedules and diets, it can be a real challenge to keep your child off the naughty list. Parenting expert Michele Borba offered some holiday help on Dec. 2, 2004.

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

MODERATOR:
Welcome to WebMD Live, Michele. Thanks for joining us today. Which of the 24 behavior problems you discuss in your Don't Give Me That Attitude! book seem to rise to the surface most this time of year?

BORBA:
Absolutely on the top is "greedy," only because we are a consumer-driven world that is actually teaching kids to be greedy during this time of year. It's "gimmie, gimmie, gimmie," but it just means we need to slow down, look around as moms and dads, and keep in mind we can tamper it, tame it.

To tame it you need to be serious. That means you can change it but you need to be committed to making that change, otherwise it will become a 365-day a year problem and not just during the holidays. Some ideas:

  • How about a reasonable budget? Start prioritizing and announcing we're going to prioritize gifts or limit them.
  • You may want to encourage family members, all of you, to make a present this year and not put a dollar amount on everything.
  • Pass your policy on, whatever it is, to other relatives. Otherwise you will not win the mom popularity contest. You may want to let them know you've put a limit on gifts or spending, whatever your policy is.
  • Consider charity. Consider having your family get into the giving mode and not just into the getting mode. The key to charity: don't do it yourself. Get your children involved with you so they realize the good they can do:
    1) You might bake cookies for the ladies next door because she looks a little lonely
    2) Go to your church or community center and adopt a family and bring another gift or extra Christmas dinner to them.
    3) It could be each child in your family deciding to give one less present, and instead giving that present to another child.
    4) A final idea is give each child a box and start spring-cleaning in December. Have them go through their closets and donate toys or clothes still in good shape and then bring them as a family to Toys for Tots or the fire department.

MODERATOR:
We do the closet cleaning with our daughter, and it also helps reinforce the idea of having a limited amount of stuff, making room for the new stuff as it were.

BORBA:
That is wonderful. Otherwise they get overwhelmed. Kids don't need all that stuff.

MODERATOR:
What about money as a gift situation?

BORBA:
The biggest response to that one is you want to help your kids learn to save, not spend. The holidays can be a great time to teach financial planning. For an older child, it's time to open up a savings account. For a younger child, it's time for a piggy bank. For a toddler, give them a clean baby food jar. Fill it up with coins, and then you can spend it. Or make a rule that some has to be saved and another percent can be spent. Otherwise, it's gone the day after Christmas.

"The big thing as parents is to start realizing little kids get just as overwhelmed as we do. So keep a lid on 'too much, too fast, too soon.'"

MODERATOR:
Kids get so excited this time of year, and we adults always say the holidays are for children, so how do we keep control of their behavior without squashing their holiday spirit?

BORBA:
It's one thing to be spirited and one thing to be naughty. Let's look at the difference. It's wonderful to be excited, but it's a different thing to be naughty. It's called too much going on. The big thing as parents is to start realizing little kids get just as overwhelmed as we do. So keep a lid on "too much, too fast, too soon" and you'll see your children's behavior temper.

MEMBER QUESTION:
My in-laws like to tell my son that Santa is watching when he's misbehaving and deciding to take back the presents he has for our son. I don't like this image of Santa being like the CIA or something. I've asked them to tone it down, but they say it's just good fun. If you saw the look in my son's eyes, you'd know he buys it 100 percent. Any advice?

BORBA:
Yes. Tune it up again. That is, be more specific and be firmer with your in-laws. If you want them to stop state very clearly, "Please don't do that anymore." You might even explain the impact it's having on your child's feelings or things your child has said. But your message has to be very clear and very firm. You may also want to get your husband on board saying it, also, if that's his mother.

MEMBER QUESTION:
My 8-year-old is already asking for a ton of toys, and even cash(!), for Christmas. What's a reasonable way to set limits on the huge Christmas list?

BORBA:
Be very clear on the number or toys or the exact amount of money. The best way to do it is to teach your child to prioritize. Give him a set of index cards and have him draw or cut out a picture for each item he really wants and paste it or draw it on each card. Now he can fan them out in front of him. Maybe he has 20 wishes and 20 things he wants, so just ask him the key question, which of the five do you want the most, or the three, or whatever number you choose. It helps him to prioritize and think things through.

MODERATOR:
Do you make it clear then that Santa or Mom and Dad are going to choose from this list?

BORBA:
Yes, you do, you make it clear that Mommy chooses, or if you want your child to choose, that's fine, also, but you set a number and he doesn't get any more gifts than that number, so that he knows he's not getting everything, but he really is going to choose the things he wants most.

Sometimes what matters is helping the kids learn between need and want. Little kids want everything. And the list will go on and on and on. So just ask him, "What do you really need most? What's going to make you the happiest for the next year?"

MEMBER QUESTION:
Then you go to the store or online and some of the stuff on the list is sold out or costs a zillion dollars. Then what?

BORBA:
The sold out thing is really the tough thing, particularly when you're talking about Santa. So you may need to cushion your child now by saying, "Santa will try his hardest, but sometimes Santa can't find everything for every little boy and girl. What's the next thing you want most?" Otherwise Christmas morning will be dismal.

The key is to think this through with your child so there are limits and you don't wait until the last minute. Then your child has realistic expectations and is not too full of hope.

MEMBER QUESTION:
What about older kids and the "entitlement syndrome" - thinking that Mom and Dad OWE them a huge assortment of wonderful Christmas gifts? Our teens almost expect this and pout if they don't feel they "got enough". The older they get the tougher it is to make everyone happy.

BORBA:
Stop feeling guilty. Your children are entitled to love and a wonderful home. They feel entitled to more, unfortunately, because you've allowed them to feel entitled, and it will continue unless you decide to put a halt to it. That means a serious talk now and a clear budget per child. And do go over it. This isn't about being popular; this is about being a parent. Oh, and don't give them my email address!

MEMBER:
Got to love an expert with a sense of humor and personality! Thanks!

BORBA:
Thank you. I come as a mother of three teenage sons.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Talking about limits and budgets sort of takes the "magic" out of the season, but I guess it's necessary, eh?

BORBA:
It's realistic, and as children get older things become more and more expensive, also. So yes, one part of the holidays is learning life. And many families I know are very concerned about it and have really cut back to limiting present spending and swear their holiday experience is a much happier and pleasant experience because they did.

The tough part is always biting the bullet and deciding you're going to do it. But if you've discovered the magical spirit is going out of your holidays and it's become a "spend, spend, spend" mentality, it's time to rethink things. Most parents swear that each year gets worse unless they decide to change this holiday.

"Many families I know...have really cut back to limiting present spending and swear their holiday experience is a much happier and pleasant experience because they did."

MEMBER QUESTION:
What are some age-appropriate tasks for a 5-year-old while on winter break to keep them occupied while waiting for Christmas day? Mine obsesses on counting the days and drives us nuts about it!

BORBA:
First of all, have the child brainstorm ideas. Each day could be a little different thing you do. Here are some to start with:
  • Christmas cookie baking and bringing them to a friend
  • Making a toy or making a present for grandma
  • Making Christmas cards, drawing a picture, and sending it to a grandma or a relative
  • Making the Christmas wrapping paper with sponge paint on brown or white paper
  • Helping you decorate

The key is to put a big calendar on your refrigerator and every day put up one new idea you can do together that can prepare her to think it through and do something that makes a difference for somebody other than herself.

MEMBER QUESTION:
We are hosting not one but two holiday parties this year. I'm already dreading what my two boys, 11 and 9, will say and do. They are wild and loud. I can't send them off to anyone's house for the night, and I don't want to banish them to their rooms. What are reasonable "threats" to make them try to behave around our guests?

BORBA:
First, make no assumptions. You need to think through what you expect your kids to do when your guests arrive, then rehearse, now and every day until the party, those skills with them. Where do you want them to stand, where do you want them to be, how do you greet a guest?

Give them responsibilities to keep them occupied, and then they'll know what to do and how to behave. They can even be standing at the door and taking coats and putting them on the bed. They can be the ones serving guests cookies. If other children are coming to the party, they can take them to another room and have some fun Christmas videos to watch.

The holidays are a great time to tune up manners for children, but don't wait until your relatives arrive or you'll slit your throat. So think it through, and rehearse with them now so they'll know what to do when the guests arrive.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Last year my then 6-year-old had a bad post-Christmas crash. She was so overexcited about Christmas day that when it was over she cried and hid behind the tree for hours. I don't want a repeat of that this year. How do you teach proper expectations to a child?

BORBA:
First, before you change your child, ask yourself how you can change your behavior so your child doesn't have the same meltdown. Really think this one through. What happened last year that created such a meltdown? It's usually so much and too many things spiraling that your child just can't cope with that. Ideally, you need to cut what you did at least in half, and you'll have a happier child and a happier you.

Think quieter, think calmer, think less, and model calmness yourself. Kids mirror our behavior.

MODERATOR:
Does less TV help cut back on expectations? So many commercials for toys and food show the holidays as this big blowout moment of perfection and happiness.

BORBA:
Not only do I think it, I know it. Research says that we really need to monitor media consumption, because it drives greediness. So think more of public television; maybe cut out the TV and just watch more videos, because the advertisers are actually tailoring those commercials to your kids so they want more. And the advertisers are winning, because our kids do.

Hint: for an older child, it's a great conversation to have with your child about the motives of an advertiser. Too often the children think the advertiser has your child's interest at heart, and it really is an eye opener to your child to find out there's another motive there.

MEMBER QUESTION:
What do you think of rewarding good behavior with treats? My wife says it's only teaching the kids to act nice for candy and won't change their attitudes in the long run. I say whatever makes them stop screaming in the van works for me. What do you think?

BORBA:
Sorry, Dad, I'm going with the wife. Every bit of research says the reward system is teaching your child to behave because he gets something. And it's a bad precedent. Dad, a better option in the car is use the brakes. Stop or pull over to the side of the road. If you need to bring a newspaper, do so and read, but refuse to go until your kids behave. They'll get the point if you do it every time. Behavior is learned. So teach your kids how you want them to behave.

P.S. Stay calm and if you need to get earplugs, do that also.

Don't respond to your kids; just be firm and consistent. Kids are great button pushers, and they will figure out what works, what wears us down, and at what point we give in. The average kid nags us nine times and that's when we give in. The secret is the kid has figured out to keep going because he knows he'll wear us down.

MEMBER QUESTION:
Is there any way to teach a toddler not to touch the Christmas tree? I don't want to put a fence around it. That looks weird. Should we just give up hope of keeping him away from the tree and hang paper ornaments that he can grab and shred?

BORBA:
Yes. Remove the glass bulbs from the bottom three feet. It's too tempting. A little guy is attracted to them. You could make his own little plastic tree that he can touch -- this one's your tree, this one's mommy's tree. Those ornaments are sparkly and you want to touch them, and how can you keep your hands off them if you're a toddler?

"Kids are great button pushers, and they will figure out what works, what wears us down, and at what point we give in."

MEMBER QUESTION:
How do you tell your children (ages 8 and 10) there is no Santa Claus?

BORBA:
The best way to approach the Santa issue is to ask them. "What do you think?" because almost always children have doubts in their head or they've heard it from others. If you really start to just sit them down and say, "What's your feeling about Santa?" almost always they're the ones to tell you they don't think he's real. So let your child lead you and they'll lead you to their discussion and how to tell them.

MODERATOR:
We are almost out of time. Before we wrap things up for today, do you have any final words for us, Michele?

BORBA:
I think the key is to take care of yourself. We try to make these holidays be so perfect that we take the joy out of it for ourselves. So pace yourself. Kids don't need the sound and light shows; it doesn't have to be a Broadway performance. What they're really looking for is that family togetherness. The table decorations don't have to be elaborate. Even paper plates are just fine. Find little ways to make things easier this year for you, and it's guaranteed to make things more fun for the whole family as a result.

Finally, the holidays are actually a wonderful time to build up some very critical virtues in our children's characters. For instance, work on gratitude and learning how to say thank you so our children look appreciative when they receive the long yellow scarf from grandma that they hate. Show them empathy for others through charity and giving to others. Courtesy and good manners and compassion -- those really should be the benchmark for a good holiday season. So enjoy it.

MODERATOR:
Our thanks to Michele Borba, ED, for joining us. For more insight and advice from our guest, be sure to pick up her book, Don't Give Me That Attitude!: 24 Selfish, Rude Behaviors and How to Stop Them .


©1996-2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.