Gift-Giving and the Thankless Child

Have your kids been known to announce, upon opening a gift in front of the gift-giver,  “I already have this one.  You should’ve gotten me the other kind!”?  Many of us have had kids burst into tears upon opening a gift, or angrily declare “I don’t like this,” causing great distress to the startled giver and great embarrassment to the hapless parent.

 It can be hard not to be horrified by such unseemly behavior, or to question our own parenting, worrying that we’ve brought up greedy, spoiled brats.  The urge is to punish them, to take things they value away from them, or to lecture them about all the less-fortunate children in the world.  However satisfying these tactics may seem, though, 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 some of the hurt feelings and mortification.  Here are some ideas to get you started:

 1) At a neutral time talk with your kids about getting presents that are disappointing.  Share your own memories from your childhood when you were not just disappointed, but offended by presents you received – the toy that was “too babyish,” or the sweater that was downright ugly.  Devise a plan with your kids for what to do in such a case.  After all, the person was thinking of you and trying to please you.  Can your kid have a special signal he can give you to let YOU know he is disappointed?  What will he say to the gift giver?  Perhaps a “Thank you so much!” said with enthusiasm, or “It was so nice of you to bring me a gift!”

 2) Play the Present Giving Game.  Let your kid find something thoroughly unappealing in the house or yard to wrap up and give to you (a rock, dirt, a spoon.)  Now your challenge is to unwrap it and say something nice (“Oh, look at this beautiful rock.  It’s so hard and smooth, I could use it as a paperweight; I know just where I’ll put it…”  or “This is just what my flower pot needs so my petunias bloom,” or “Wow, what a shiny spoon.  I can’t wait to use it to stir my tea in the morning…”).   Now reverse the challenge and wrap up something icky for your child to open. And here’s a variation on the basic theme — you 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??”) and your child gets to laugh at you.  Part of the game can be to see if your child can figure out whether your response is “nice” or not.

3) Try to reduce the frenzy of anticipation.  For some youngsters the waiting and excitement is just more than they can handle.  Living with wrapped presents under the tree for days or even weeks can be pure torture for a young child.  When the time comes, you can give unwrapped gifts, or tell them ahead of time the general idea of what they are getting, or even just say, “hey I just got you guys a little, no-big-deal present to goof around with.”  Don’t worry.  Their ability to handle anticipation will blossom with age.

4) If you are celebrating Hanukkah, you might want to designate some nights as activity nights rather than present giving nights.  Let the kids help plan the special activities (cooking latkes, music, stories, crafts, games…)  Some nights can be just for kids to give presents to parents (a picture or card.)  Then you can do some modeling (“Ooh, what a cheerful, colorful picture!  I’m going to put it next to my bed, so it cheers me up when I wake up in the morning.”)

5) There is nothing wrong with letting your child know your strong expectations when she is acting abominably in public.  You can take that kid aside and let her know, “When someone gives you a gift I expect you to say thank you graciously, EVEN when you are very disappointed.”  Give her some time to collect herself and be ready for this.  The trick is to insist on it without calling her greedy or a spoiled brat or selfish or any other choice adjectives that come to mind.  It IS hard for kids to do this.  It’s not a moral failing when they don’t, but of course they need to learn.

 With a little advance preparation, both giver and receiver can enjoy the season of gifts.  Let us know what works for your family!

Julie King is a Parent Educator in the Bay Area.  Her most popular workshop, “HOW TO TALK SO KIDS WILL LISTEN,” is available for your school or parent group.  She also offers private consultations in person and by phone.  She can be reached at 415-939-3553 or  For more information, visit

Joanna Faber is a Parent Educator in New York.  She too leads “HOW TO TALK SO KIDS WILL LISTEN” workshops and offers school presentations throughout the N.Y. metropolitan area.  She can be reached at

Together Julie and Joanna are currently working on a book, tentatively titled “HOW TO TALK SO YOUNG KIDS WILL LISTEN.”  Please send your stories to us, and we will include as many as possible (with names changed to protect the frazzled).