By: Dr Justin Coulson
If you’ve got kids (and even if you don’t), you’re well aware that Christmas morning is the most hotly anticipated moment of the year.
Kids sneak out of bed well before dawn to see what Santa’s left under the Christmas tree. Parents the world over are saying, ‘Stay in bed. It’s not morning until at least 9am!’ And we lay there trying to grab a few more minutes of sleep while our kids moan and complain in frustration.
When we do finally roll out of bed and stumble bleary-eyed towards the kitchen, our kids are already tearing around the living room, shouting out to each other and shaking each present to see if they can guess what’s inside. Parents are now saying, ‘Wait, wait, let me get the camera first’, or ‘I just need five minutes to make a cuppa’.
Our kids are getting more and more exasperated. They’re absolutely desperate to tear into the packages – to see if Santa has brought just the thing they wanted! ‘You’re taking forever!’ they shout.
When they’re finally given the go ahead, we try to slow them down – ‘One present at a time’, we urge – as presents are unwrapped, admired, and tossed aside in favour of the next unopened item under the tree.
Soon, everything is unwrapped. We’re drowning in a sea of discarded wrappings and our kids are slumped on the couch ill-tempered and exhausted. We look at the clock. 7am. And Christmas is over.
That feeling of disillusionment on Christmas morning is all too familiar. We’ve worked hard to make Christmas special and magical for our kids, yet, Christmas morning is a blur as they desperately rush to open presents. As parents we’re often left feeling like our kids are spoiled or entitled and unwilling to take the time to appreciate what they’ve been given.
Our Children Perceive Time Differently
The reality is that our children are desperate to open their presents. And that’s because time is actually slower for our children. What feels like a few moments to us, can feel like forever to them. In other words, children really can’t wait.
Without language, and without the experience and cognitive capacity of adults, children simply don’t have the ability to actually understand the passing of time. This doesn’t make sense to adults because it’s how we live our lives. But our children literally live in the moment. That’s why everything is “boring” when they are sitting still. They’re waiting for the next moment, the next thing.
Even when they’re older their memories tend to be linked to experiences or events. Children don’t have the same time structures that we do as adults – morning, noon, night, for example – which we can use to hold our memories. Each time they have breakfast that event will need to be stored as a separate item in their brain. On the other hand, as a grown up, we can group one breakfast with all the other breakfasts we’ve had and compress them into ‘episodes’. This gives us more space in our brains for other cognitive efforts.
But before the age of about 12 or so, each breakfast (and every other thing they have to do before opening presents!) is still taking up their attention and their time. This means that time is literally passing more slowly for them. And that makes it harder for them to wait for anything – but especially for Christmas morning!
Slowing Down and Enjoying Christmas
Of course, there are still ways to help our children slow down and enjoy Christmas morning more, without all the ‘waiting’ anxiety.
Take the focus off presents
It might feel impossible but shifting the focus away from present opening can help take the pressure off. I’m not saying don’t have presents! But maybe focus on something else that you do together as a family instead on Christmas morning – whether it’s having a special breakfast or heading out for a swim at the beach.
Talk about what you can give others, not what your children want.
Thinking about others is great for wellbeing and for instilling a sense of gratitude. Instead of asking what your children want from Santa, spend more time talking about what you could give to (or even better do for) someone else.
Be aware of their different perceptions.
At the end of the day, sometimes we just have to accept that our kids are operating on a slightly different wavelength than we are. That’s ok. Understanding that they really will struggle to wait will help us enjoy Christmas morning with them much more.
And maybe it’s a little lesson for us – as grownups we can be guilty of making life a little too routine sometimes. Let your children infect you with their Christmas excitement. Breaking out of our routine is good for our brains as well. And the next time they shout, ‘You’re taking forever’, it helps to remember that from their perspective, you really are.
Article supplied with thanks to Happy Families.
About the Author: A sought after public speaker and author, and former radio broadcaster, Justin has a psychology degree from the University of Queensland and a PhD in psychology from the University of Wollongong.