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Raising Gratitude Around Gift-Giving

Bonnie Harris

Celebrations & Traditions

Birthdays and holidays mean presents. Presents can mean greediness, rude behavior and sibling fights over perceived inequality. Parents see the greed and fear raising selfish, inconsiderate children. We wish for altruistic children who empathize with the less fortunate and readily share with siblings and peers. When our children get into the gimmees, we get into controlling, and it’s down hill from there.

Think back to when you were a child. Did your expectations and hopes always come true? Were you let down when all the excitement and celebration was over? Did you experience disappointment? Do you now fear your child’s? Were you shamed for your feelings if you showed disappointment or anger about not getting a present you wanted? Were you given “that look” when you opened those socks from Aunt Mary? “After all you’ve gotten…!” or “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say it at all”, or “You should be grateful, there are plenty of children who get nothing.”

If you were guilt-tripped into believing you were bad for being disappointed, you learned to stuff your feelings, began to pretend, and put on the masks that so many of us wear believing we are not good enough without them. Now you expect your children to do the same.

What you probably didn’t get as a child was acknowledgment and understanding. It’s so much more effective than barking out the traditional criticisms hoping you can scare your children’s ingratitude away. But we are too afraid of indulging negative feelings. “Oh boy, you really wished you hadn’t gotten that,” may feel like giving permission to tell Aunt Mary what you really think. Or, “You wanted that video game so badly, and you didn’t get it,” might feel like you are condoning the meltdown.

We all want to be understood for feeling what we do. Children are no exception.

When your child has a meltdown in front of grandma over a present she doesn’t want or didn’t get, calmly take her into another room, allow her tantrum and tears, and then let her know that her feelings are okay and normal. “It’s hard when it doesn’t turn out the way you want. Everyone experiences that, it’s no fun.” No need for lectures about appreciation or shaming her into feeling like a bad child. After connection has been made, she will be ready to make amends if you let her. “What would you like to say to grandma now that you’re feeling better? You can always tell me how you really feel.”

When children feel forced to be who they’re not, gratitude is in short supply. When you allow them the experience of disappointment—as real and normal a feeling as happiness—they learn to handle it in a world that will likely dole it out in chunks.

The normal developmental expectation is: A child’s job is to get what he wants when he wants it. The maturing process teaches delayed gratification, but that lesson is hard-learned if he doesn’t get to experience disappointment. Validate your child’s desires and disappointments. “Of course you really want that. I would too if I were you. And I know how disappointed you feel when I tell you it’s too expensive for us.” There may be tears, but they are less likely to be angry, reactive tears.

Here are some preparatory measures:

  • Never use the promise of a gift as a reward or punishment for desired behavior. Bribery always backfires.
  • Encourage the mindset of giving through involvement in charity programs. Encourage children to pick out gifts for relatives.
  • If your child writes a long list of wished-for gifts, remind him that his wishes are all wonderful even though he may not receive them all.
  • Don’t feel guilt-tripped into giving expensive presents because you worry that you don’t spend enough time with your child, you don’t have enough money to do for them what you wish, or you have divorced. Buy what feels right and what you can afford. Then spend some extra time with each.
  • Remember their agendas. They want what they want because they live in the culture in which they are being raised. Demanding appreciation for a life they have nothing to compare theirs to is confusing at best.
  • Focus on moments of tradition, of unconditional love, special times of doing something together when fun and laughter and connection are abundant. This is the gift they want more than anything.
  • And lastly, model the gratitude you want to see in your children. No teaching is more powerful.
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Bonnie Harris

Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed. is the director of Connective Parenting and is an international speaker and parent educator. She has taught groups and coached parents privately for thirty years. Bonnie is the author of two books, "When Your Kids Push Your Buttons" and "Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With”. You can learn more about her work at or follow her on Facebook