Have your kids been known to announce, upon opening a gift, “I already have this!” or angrily declare, “I don’t like it!” or even burst into tears, causing great distress to the startled giver and great embarrassment to the hapless parent?
It’s hard not to be horrified by such behavior, or to question our own parenting, worrying that we’ve brought up greedy, spoiled brats. The urge is to lecture them about all the less-fortunate children in the world, or to punish them by suspending future gift-giving until they learn to show some gratitude. However appealing these tactics may seem, none of them tend to create the grateful child of our dreams.
As we head into the potentially hazardous season of gift exchange, now is a good time to start preparing children to be gracious gift recipients and head off hurt feelings and mortification. Here are some ideas to get you started:
1) Start by Acknowledging Feelings
At a neutral time, talk with your kids about getting presents that are disappointing. You can share memories from your own childhood when you were disappointed, or even offended, by a present you received – the toy that was “too babyish,” or the sweater that was downright ugly. Talk about how hard it is to be polite when you expect something wonderful and get something you don’t want. This is a good time (when your child is not in a state of emotional distress) to point out that, after all, the gift giver was thinking of you and trying to please you, and it’s important not to make that person feel bad.
2) Problem Solve with your Child
Devise a plan with your kids for how to handle a disappointing gift. Can your child have a special signal he can give you to let you know he’s disappointed? What will he say to the gift giver? Perhaps a simple, “Thank you so much!” or, “It was so nice of you to bring me a gift!”
3) Make it a Game
Practice for the big moment by playing the “Present Giving Game.” Your child can find something thoroughly unappealing to wrap and give to you (a rock, a spoon, a cup of dirt.) Now your challenge is to unwrap it and say something nice (“Oh, look at this beautiful rock. It’s so hard and smooth, I’ll use it as a paperweight…” or “Wow, what a shiny spoon. I can’t wait to stir my tea with it…” or “This dirt is just what I need to plant my flower seeds.”). Now reverse the challenge and wrap something icky for your child to open.
Here’s a variation on the theme — you can give a “terrible” response: “Oh no, not another dirty tissue; I already have so many of these.” “I hate this kind of broken crayon. You wasted your money!” “I wanted a different color; why didn’t you buy me a green one?” “Ok, thanks. What else did you get me?” Your child can have a laugh at your expense and then she can instruct you on what you should have said!
4) Adjust your expectations
Try to reduce the frenzy of anticipation. Living with shiny, wrapped presents under the tree for days can be too much for some youngsters. A child’s imagination can go wild trying to guess what is in that box. The reality often cannot measure up. All the wondrous possibilities suddenly disappear! Some children do better when told ahead of time what they are going to get.
Another way to take the pressure off of gift giving is to emphasize special activities such as cookie baking, games or making holiday crafts. Some kids do better when the emphasis is on making gifts for other people in their family. Then you can model the behavior you hope to see in the future from your child (“Ooh, what a colorful picture! I’m going to put it next to my bed, so it makes me happy when I open my eyes in the morning.”)
We’re not trying to take the joy out of celebrating with gifts. Your child’s ability to handle anticipation and appreciate surprises will blossom with age. In the meantime, do whatever works best for your family!
Joanna Faber and Julie King are internationally acclaimed experts on communication between adults and children. They are the authors of the best-selling book “How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7″ and have recently co-authored Parenting Hero which is a new iOS app developed by MythicOwl. Parenting Hero helps parents form joyful relationships with their kids by role-playing many common situations, viewing the hand-drawn animated comics and choosing their responses to the problems.
Click here to learn more about the Parenting Hero app.