Dear Readers: During the busy holiday season and throughout the year, I hope you find my six guidelines for giving and receiving gifts make giving and getting gifts more fun and enjoyable for your child, as well as for your child’s gift givers.
1. Help your child create a “gift wish list.”
At a very young age, children learn to start a sentence with “I want…a new game, a certain toy, an electronic device.” Keep a running list of all these I-want items for your child and each time she says, “I want…”, you say, “Fine. Let’s add it to your gift wish list and then we can consider it as a birthday or holiday gift.”
This approach honors your child’s desire to want something without forcing you to take any immediate action. Then when appropriate gift-giving time is on the horizon, you can prioritize the wish list with your child — some items will drop off and others will be added. When grandparents and others ask what they can get for your child, you reference her gift wish list. In some instances, especially for older kids saving up for something more expensive, you can suggest that the gift giver contribute towards the purchase of the desired item.
In all cases, keeping a gift wish list for your child has several benefits: it helps him learn deferred gratification; it cuts down on disappointments; it eliminates the exchange frenzy; it helps gift givers feel confident that they’re giving something that is truly of value or interest to a child.
2. Expand the wish list to include events and experiences.
Your child’s gift givers typically think of purchasing something material, but including on the wish list events and experiences as gifts can be incredibly enriching and valuable. Suggest to grandparents that they plan a special day with your child for her birthday. Think how excited your child will be to learn that as a gift Grandma and Grandpa are taking her to the circus, or to the latest Disney movie followed by pancakes at the local diner, or for art lessons at the museum, or to rent a boat in Central Park, or to see a Broadway production. The possibilities are endless.
Also, doing things together are gifts that can delight your child and create lasting and cherished memories, e.g., making Grandpa’s special cookies with him, learning to knit with Grandma, scrapbooking with Aunt Linda, woodworking with Uncle Hank. In addition to these being gifts that your child will always remember with love and fondness, they are gifts that your budget-conscious gift givers can feel good about, both financially and emotionally.
3. Emphasize graciousness and gratitude when receiving gifts.
Children often need parental help in accepting gifts graciously. Prior to your son’s opening his birthday or holiday presents, review with him the cardinal rule of accepting gifts: “Even if you are disappointed, always look at the gift giver and say, ‘Thank you, this is a wonderful gift!’” Practice this with your child before the opening of gifts: “Let’s be clear. What are you going to say and do after you open each gift?”
You can also help your child be a gracious gift receiver by handing him each gift to be opened, making sure he opens each card and either reads it himself or it is read to him. This cuts down on the out-of-control, crazed jumping from one gift to the next and not appropriately acknowledging the gift and the gift giver.
There may be times you will want to prepare your child in advance for a certain disappointment: “Your godmother tried very hard to get you something in the color you would have preferred, but she wasn’t able to, so you need to remember to be pleased when you open her gift, even though you may really be feeling disappointed.”
Another way to teach graciousness and gratitude in receiving gifts is to space out when they are given. Of course you’ll want your child’s gift givers to enjoy watching the gift being opened in their presence whenever possible, but there may be times you can withhold some gifts for “a rainy day” (literally and figuratively).
For example, if you bought your child several holiday presents, you may think about not giving them all out during the holidays, but rather, save some of them and present them during the following weeks: “Oh, what a yucky day this is. We cannot go to the park and play, but I have a surprise for you. Daddy and I put aside one of your holiday presents and today seems like a mighty fine time to give you a ‘rainy day’ present.”
If you do this enough, instead of your child saying, “I’m bored,” you may find him asking if you happen to have any “rainy day” presents around. If you do, you may want to pull one out. Rainy day presents can be an easy and creative way to deal with an overabundance of presents, as well as increase awareness of and gratitude for each and every gift received.
4. Emphasize the joy of giving gifts.
Although getting pleasure from giving to others comes easier to some children than to others, all kids can benefit from being provided opportunities to be the gift giver. Example: “Daddy’s birthday is coming up.” Saying “What can we do to make it a special day for him?” is a very different question from “What can we buy him?” There is certainly nothing wrong with thinking about purchases for him, but brainstorming and planning special things to do for and with Daddy helps your child appreciate the joy that comes from giving and making someone happy.
Even if your child is too young to offer much in the way of ideas for making Daddy’s birthday special, you sharing your ideas can help build the right foundation. “We can make Daddy his favorite breakfast and serve it to him in bed, we can draw special birthday placemats for the table and make him the spaghetti dinner he loves, we can buy him that new golf club he’s been eyeing and make our own wrapping paper for it, we can rent his favorite family video and watch it together while we eat popcorn, we can make him a special birthday hat that says he’s the best daddy in the world, we can invite Grandma and Grandpa over and each of us can decorate the cupcakes we make any way we want…”, and the list goes on.
It’s all about doing things that will bring joy to someone else, and the more your child is part of the planning special things for someone else, the greater the chances are that she will want to repeat the fun and pleasure that comes from putting a smile on someone else’s face.
5. Make thank-you notes a natural and expected part of the process.
While gifts are being opened, make sure someone is keeping a list of who has given which gift, as this list will come in handy for writing thank-you notes. All gifts, be they purchases, events or experiences, merit a thank-you note. If the gift giver can invest the time, emotional energy (and money, if it’s a purchased gift), then your child can certainly find the time to show her gratitude in an appropriate way — with an old-fashioned, low tech, hand-written thank-you note. It’s also recommended that only a couple notes a day be written to make the task feel more doable, especially for the younger children.
For the pre-literate child, I suggest the parent writes out the complete thank-you note and then, by way of signature, traces the child’s hand or does a finger paint print. For the child with some writing skills, the parent can write out the bulk of the note and the child can sign his name and affix some “xxoo’s”. Most older kids can write the whole note alone, but for younger ones just mastering writing and spelling, I suggest a parent sit beside their child to offer help with spacing and spelling. I think it’s a good idea for the child to always use a pencil to write their notes to ease erasing inevitable errors and not having to start from scratch, a sure activity spoiler.
Picking out the thank-you note can be something your child can participate in, from selecting ready-made ones, to hand making them, to computer-created ones. Personalizing the thank-you notes can be fun for your child if you provide some stickers, markers, construction paper and glue. Remind your child that many of his thank-you notes are going to end up posted on a refrigerator, so he’ll want to send something which he can be proud to have on display.
6. Be a good role model for giving and receiving gifts.
This is probably the hardest guideline to apply. As any parent or educator knows, children are always influenced more by what adults actually say and do, rather than by what we espouse we should be doing. If you want to teach your child certain values and behaviors about giving and getting gifts, then you need to consistently model those values and behaviors yourself.
Being a good model means that as the predictably ugly tchotchke from your aunt arrives every December, all your child should see from you is your appreciation, so he or she can remember it in such a nice way.
If you want to emphasize that spending time together with your child is as valuable a gift as getting a Tiffany’s gift certificate, then tell your child that going to the zoo and having lunch together is what you really want for your birthday or holiday gift.
And finally, make sure your child receives a thank-you note from you about the special time you had together at the zoo, the lovely lunch that followed, and that you look forward to your next outing together.
Note to readers: My next column will post Tuesday, January 8th. I wish you and your loved ones a wonderful holiday season and a Happy New Year.
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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