When the materialistic side of Christmas rears its ugly head, child psychologists admit it often has a child's face.

Never mind visions of sugar plums. For many children, the only things dancing in their heads - with all the resolution of a Nintendo or TURBO-Grafx-16 home video game - are dreams of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Batman and Go-Go My Walking Pup.Experts on child development call it a natural process for youngsters to want things. At around age 2, they say, the average child says "mine" about everything in view. It's only over time that they develop a sense of what is theirs and what belongs to others.

"To learn how to give they first have to learn what it feels like to be recipients - of love or gifts or whatever, so you could consider it a developmental process," said Caroline Persell, head of the sociology department at New York University.

"If it's sort of a stage that people have to go through, hopefully they get beyond it when they see some of the fun of thinking of gifts for other people. That's part of the fun of Christmas."

But don't most children think 'tis better to receive than to give?

"I think kids from a very young age are capable of being totally selfish," said Martin Hoffman, head of the NYU psychology department. "But they are also capable of being quite empathic and sympathetic toward others who do not have what they have."

The problem, Hoffman said, is not that children are inherently selfish, but that Christmas thrusts them into a context that surrounds them with all sorts of things they would like to have. And they usually respond with according materialism, even greed.

But change the context, and the same child might offer a pleasant surprise.

"Most kids, as greedy and self-oriented as they appear when they go to visit Santa in the department stores and sit on his lap and ask for everything under the sun, if put into the position of knowing that there are other children who have nothing - and if there are adults around who make the suggestion that they might want to share some of their things - most kids would share a lot," Hoffman said.

Hoffman explained that children, and parents too, are bombarded by television commercials that put them in the context of gift getters, rarely as potential givers. But it needn't be that way, Hoffman asserts.

In that sense, Hoffman said, children reflect American society as a whole.

"This whole American culture is probably the most materialistic culture in the history of humankind. On the other hand it is also a very giving culture."