Link copied to clipboard

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:

More than ever before, actual mail that gets delivered to the actual mail box is rare. In fact, these days the only thing we seem to get in the mail are bills or cheap mailers promoting a new pizzeria or a dry cleaners. When it comes to giving gifts to children who are not your own – either the kids of friends or even nieces or nephews – do you expect a thank-you note in return? More importantly, do you get upset if you don’t get the proper acknowledgment? A good rule to remember with gift-giving is that you shouldn’t give a gift unless it is truly given altruistically, meaning that you sincerely want the recipient to have it. If you give a gift and get upset about it, it means that you are highly principled about certain social conventions. You practice them because you think it’s the “right” thing to do, and you have expectations about being acknowledged for your generosity.

What is a reasonable way for teenagers to say “thank you?”

Because the use of daily mail seems antiquated – especially to teenagers today to who have probably never had a reason to rely on it before – I have found that a reasonable social expectation for a teenager receiving a gift is to either write a thank-you note or place a quick phone call to say “thank you.” Because most teens won’t want to call another adult on the phone, they will usually opt to write the note instead.

The real problem with gift-giving

This issue is an important one because it brings to light a much deeper issue in our society today: So much of gift-giving is done out of a sense of obligation and not out of a sense of altruism. If you find yourself getting upset because someone didn’t acknowledge your gift, it means that the recipient – or the recipient’s parent – doesn’t assign the same importance to thank-you notes or acknowledgments that you do. Sadly, so many people give gifts not because they have the money or truly want to, but because they feel they should.

What to do after the fact – when a gift you have given was not acknowledged

I’ll share a personal anecdote that relates perfectly even though the situation I’ll describe is about an interaction with an adult. This past year, I left a gift in the mailbox for the mailman and never heard anything in response. Months later, I saw him as he delivered the mail and I asked him if he ever received it. He said that he did, but still he did not take the opportunity then to say “thank you.” For obvious reasons, I won’t be giving him another gift this year at Christmas, but my asking him about it was my way of communicating that I found it odd that I left a gift for him and never actually got confirmation that he even received it. If you give a gift to someone else’s child – regardless of whether it’s the child of a neighbor, coworker or even relative – be a responsible adult and deal with it directly. Send an email or make a call and say, “I wanted to check in because I never heard anything in response to that gift I gave, and I wasn’t sure if it he or she liked it or not.” By addressing the issue this way, you aren’t attacking the parent or child, but you are indirectly educating that parent about what your expectation is when you go out of your way to spend your hard-earned money on someone else. Hopefully, by communicating better with each other, we will all learn to frustrate each less and appreciate each other more.