We are taught from childhood that “it is better to give than to receive.” Well, sometimes it’s also a lot easier. Earlier this week a friend called me with the following lament:
“I dread Christmas morning. We always have breakfast with my in-laws and then exchange gifts. Last year, Jenny didn’t like what her grandmother gave her, told her so in no uncertain terms, and practically threw her gift down on the floor. My husband and I tried to smooth things over and later took a couple of her toys away from her for a week. And, of course, we talked about how she had hurt her grandmother’s feelings. She seemed sorry, but on her birthday this past summer she did pretty much the same thing with the gifts she got from a couple of her friends. She seems to think the choice of a gift has to be totally in terms of what the receiver wants.”
Jenny isn’t the only child who acts that way; it’s a common problem with preschoolers. It can be very embarrassing to parents, who deplore having their child appear selfish and spoiled. But the concept of a gift is probably pretty fuzzy in the minds of children. They often think of a gift exchange as no different from the kind of choice made when one makes a purchase—you buy what you want, and you expect a gift to be equally tailored to your wishes. When that doesn’t happen and your expectations are violated, you react immaturely.
What can parents do in response to this kind of reaction? Certainly you can apologize to the giver whose feelings are hurt. And taking away some favorite toys for a time, as my friend did, is another partial remedy. There are other types of deprivation you can try—not letting your child wear a favorite article of clothing (especially if it had been an approved gift), foregoing a planned excursion, etc. But you’re likely to be more interested in learning what you can do to prevent this behavior. Here are three different approaches that may help:
- Involve the child in selecting gifts for other people.
Take her with you when you go shopping for someone she knows. And ask questions like, “What do you think Daddy might like for his birthday?” You might well get a suggestion of something your son or daughter would like that would not be high on Daddy’s list! If so, that gives you a good opportunity to talk casually about the fact that we want to try to please the one a gift is intended for when we buy one.
- Remind the child that gifts sometimes respond to needs, not wishes.
Suppose your son got some new shoes from you instead of the Hot Wheels® car he wanted and acts mad and peevish. Try to get him to talk about his disappointment and explain that he really needed the shoes now and that maybe he’ll get the toy he wanted for his birthday. Comment on how most of the gifts you received represented things you needed for the house or for everyday personal use.
- Rehearse the receiving of gifts.
If there has been an outburst before, your child may or may not remember it. Assume that she doesn’t remember and suggest, “Last year you really hurt Grandma’s feelings by saying you didn’t like what she gave you. Now let’s pretend it’s Christmas morning and she has given you a new sweater instead of the Barbie® you told her you wanted. Tell me what you might say when you open the package and see what’s inside.” Go through this bit of role-playing two or three times with different ill-chosen gifts. By the time you finish, she should have at least the beginning of a new script in mind.
- Practice what you preach.
Sometimes we grown-ups are not too polite about the gifts we receive. You open the new toaster and it isn’t the brand you want. And you grimace. You expected a sweater and got place mats. It is important that you model gracious receiving for your children. If your disappointment shows too clearly on your face or through your words or actions, your kids will reinforce their expectation that a gift has to be tailored to the wishes of the receiver rather than to the intent of the giver.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.