Does Santa Make Us Selfish?

Video experiment shows one easy thing parents can do to help their kids be more generous during the holidays

Provo, Utah December 3, 2014In a newly released video, Santa’s Elf holds out two tantalizing foil-wrapped chocolate Christmas bears to Emma and Alex. One chocolate bear is 8 inches tall. The other is tiny—the size of a clothespin. “Sorry,” the Elf says, “we only have one big bear left.” He turns to Emma, the subject child: “Here, you choose—which do you want?” Will Emma take the big one and stiff Alex, or in the spirit of the season, will she decide it’s more blessed to give than to receive?

New research by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, co-authors of New York Times bestseller Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, finds that a few small changes in how parents talk about Christmas make a huge difference in whether Christmas traditions make kids selfish or generous.

According to the study, almost two-thirds of the 571 parents surveyed (64%) believe Santa traditions instill greed or selfishness in their children. And yet 86% wish that the “Season of Giving” would promote generosity.

“We wanted to find out whether parents were unwittingly undermining their own goals,” said Maxfield. “Specifically, we wondered if the way parents talk about Christmas has a significant influence on whether kids become self-centered or empathic during the holidays.”

“When we asked parents, we found that almost three fourths (73%) talk more with their kids about what they want to get than what they want to give. We wondered if this affects kids’ attitudes and actions. So we invited 58 kids to a Christmas party to find out if that mattered,” said Grenny. [See video here.]

The subject kids had a brief meeting with Santa. In one condition Santa used his traditional script – asking kids what they hoped to “get” for Christmas. Next the kids were escorted in pairs (one subject and one confederate) to receive a chocolate treat from the Elf. In the control condition, two thirds (67%) of subjects took the larger chocolate and left the tiny one for their colleague. One boy hardly waited for the Elf to finish his line, tore the large one from his hand and said, “I’m outta here!”

In the second condition, Santa changed the script. He said, “What kinds of gifts are you hoping to ‘give’ people this year?” Kids were confused. Many didn’t even hear the reframed question until it was repeated two or three times—evidence that Christmas has consistently been framed as “getting” for kids. The differences between kids primed for “giving” were remarkable—this time almost half (47%) offered the larger bear to their peer – a 42% improvement.

According to the study, parents who actively frame Christmas as a time to give can have a profound influence on their child’s feelings about the season. Examples of these actions include:

  • Taking children shopping for presents they will give.
  • Expecting them to use some of their own money to buy gifts.
  • Involving kids in doing some kind of charitable work to get into the holiday spirit.
  • Helping kids write a “gift” list as well as a “wish” list—detailing things they want to make or do for those they love.
  • Collecting presents for a “Sub for Santa” or other holiday giving cause.
  • Making a donation of a valued toy or other possession for someone less fortunate.

“We were surprised at how little it took to help kids access their ‘nice’ rather than ‘naughty’ natures,” said Maxfield. “Simply helping kids connect Christmas with giving tapped their natural concern for others.”

Note to Editor: Grenny and Maxfield are available for interview. Copies of their book Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, full survey results, and hi-res infographics are also available.

About VitalSmarts:

An innovator in corporate training and leadership development, VitalSmarts is home to the award-winning Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything Training and New York Times bestselling books of the same titles. When used in combination, these courses enable organizations to achieve new levels of performance by changing employee behavior. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than one million people worldwide.


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