Why waiting for Christmas may be bad for your child
With toys wrapped and placed under the tree, with new shoes hidden in room cabinets and new pants and shirts inside locked down closets, children are outraged with their parents and caregivers. If without Christmas they cannot have their belongings, then who is holding up Christmas, and when is Christmas going to come, children frequently ask? Of course, since none of the explanations would make sense to the child, adults just ignore them. Which is why some children take matters into their own hands.
“She has ripped off all the wrappings to see the toys,” the mother of a five-year-old girl told me during an unrelated conversation while they were on a medical visit at my office. “Christmas is still two weeks away,” lamented the mother. As the mother complained, I could tell that the child looked ashamed. Behind her finger-covered face, she watched my face for a reaction. Empathetic to the child, I told her I wish I had the power to bring on Christmas tomorrow. She was briefly elated, and I think I temporarily cured her shame, stress, and anxiety.
Seeing one five-year-old ashamed of peeking at her Christmas presents made me wonder how many children are throwing tantrums or having sleepiness nights due to a favorite toy under the tree which they can’t have until Christmas Day. The reason waiting causes distress in children is, perhaps, because they do not fully understand the reason why they have to wait. While an adult sees the waiting as a crescendo that ends up in a climax on the day the birth of Jesus is celebrated, the child perhaps sees it as unnecessary deprivation of fun and pleasure. Moreover, this adult order to wait is in conflict with the child’s natural tendencies to explore their environment and expose anything hidden. To them, there is no point buying a toy, wrapping it up so that nobody can see it, and putting it under the tree, waiting for an arbitrary day.
Adults used to wonder the same way when they were children. Over time, however, they have learned to accept the behavior set by society. I remember how it felt when I was a child and my parents bought shoes and clothes that my siblings and I could not wear until Christmas. Since there were no Christmas trees in my ancestral village of Akokwa, Nigeria, under which to hide presents, my mother would put them away in the corner of her closet and forbid us from going to search for them. When I was probably the same age as the five-year-old girl who, as the mother had reported, had opened all her Christmas presents, I would go to my mother each day when we woke up to ask if it was Christmas yet. “Not yet,” she would say. Disappointed, I would ask, “When will Christmas come?” “You will know when it comes,” she would reply.
Whether waiting for Christmas makes children more sad than disappointed is hard to tell. However, through their behaviors, one witnesses the anxiety the anticipation builds. With the toys under the trees that children must stay away from, with the new shoes in the closet that nobody can wear until Christmas, I am not sure what values parents are trying to teach. Parents, it seems, think that since as children they waited for their toys, their children should wait as well.
Other parents may argue that waiting is a lesson in patience and self-regulation. If so, it is a burden to children’s immature psyches. Every adult should know that it is not in the nature of children to wait. Their executive function (prefrontal cortex) is not mature enough to handle the strain of waiting. Let them deal with it, some adults will say. Let them learn to wait. Fine and good, but that approach leads to agitation and anxiety, which may linger over time and, in my judgment, may have pathological consequences.
Anticipatory deprivation is the term I use to describe what these children have to endure. A child who waits seven days to open a toy may not suffer the exact impact of stress as another child who waits for three months. This cultural practice of making children wait weeks for their presents is no different from looking at tantalizing food that is out of reach. Let us not gloss over the potential emotional turmoil these practices may have on children.
Granted, Christmas is a once-a-year event; however, the same pattern of anticipatory deprivation may exist at other times. I am not suggesting that this kind of cultural practice rises to the level of an adverse childhood experiences, ACE or toxic stress (Shonkoff et al., 2012). But, added together, it is uncertain how these societal systematic anticipatory deprivations affect the young psyche. I have a notion that chastising a child for exercising his or her biological capacities may create some psychic conflict or trauma. Other holidays, such as Easter and Hanukah, as well as a celebration such as a birthday, may reawaken the same expectation anxiety in children.
Children have vibrant emotions and feelings similar to adults, even though sometimes they do not have words to express them. Without proper explanation, children may conclude and believe that some adult practices (such as preventing them from opening their toys) are mean spirited, and they may carry this resentment in their mind until they reach an adult level of understanding and reasoning. Researchers and developmental psychologists warn of the mistakes that occur in the manner children understand adult actions. In fact, they say that a child’s misinterpretation of a parent or caregiver’s action might be one of the main sources of mental health problems later on in life. Taking a moment to explain the rationale of an action or a process to a child may help in their knowledge and lessen emotional conflict.
I suggest that parents take time to explain to their children why they cannot have the toys until Christmas Day. Try to get feedback from the child to elicit an understanding of the parental explanation. Second, parents and caregivers should shorten the days between purchasing presents and Christmas Day. Do not let the child wait longer than necessary – definitely not more than one week. Third, keep new shoes, clothing, and toys out of sight if you do not want children to open them. Last, and foremost, bring back baby Jesus in all the discussions involving Christmas.
Just like our understanding of a certain phenomenon informs us to set limits, I believe that a day will come when evidence becomes abundantly clear that anticipatory deprivation does not serve children well. To all the children of the world, I say, today is a good time to be a child. Help is on the way. Christmas will come sooner than you ever imagined.
Anselm Anyoha MD is a pediatrician, and graduate student of Infant Mental Health at fielding Graduate University California.
Shonkoff, J. P., Garner, A. S., Siegel, B. S., Dobbins, M. I., Earls, M. F., McGuinn, L., … & Committee on early childhood, adoption, and dependent care. (2012). The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress. American Academy of Pediatrics, 129(1),e232-e246.