Jocey, one of the parents in my parent group, was mortified. Her mother-in-law had given her 8-year-old son a toy fire truck. Instead of saying “thank you,” the boy looked at it and said something like, “That’s for babies. I don’t like trucks” and tossed it back in the box.
Her story reminded me of the time that my kids’ favorite uncle gave my then-3-year-old son a two-foot battery-driven robot with blazing red eyes. My son backed up warily as the thing jerked across the floor. Terrified, he burst into tears.
My brother-in-law was hurt and upset. His extravagant gift had flopped. After some comforting and explaining by his uncle, my son saved the day by naming the monster “Bwent” and tying his beloved blanket around it to make it softer.
Both Jocey’s son and mine are sweet kids. They didn’t mean to be mean or ungrateful. Their reactions were honest kid reactions. Neither Jocey nor I had thought to teach our kids how to handle it when they didn’t like a gift. It just hadn’t come up.
Some of the other parents in the group admitted this was something they hadn’t thought much about either. Other than prompting their kids to say “thank you” when they were given something, they hadn’t spelled out the ins and outs of how to accept a gift despite it being not quite what was wanted. How do we help kids show gratitude when they’re not grateful? What can we teach them about caring more about the relationship than the gift?
One mom ventured a question: “How do we teach a kid to be honest yet tell her to fib about being grateful when Grandma gave her an ugly puce sweater that is two sizes too big?” Good question. The answer is embedded in our cultural ideas about the necessity of some white lies to keep relationships running smoothly.
It’s up to us to explain to our children that there is a difference between lying outright and telling small fibs that spare another person’s feelings. Lying is intended to hurt someone, to get something at another’s expense, to manipulate people or to avoid a responsibility. White lies, little fibs that aren’t manipulative or hurtful in any way, are sometimes a way to be nice. They help people feel good and get along with each other.
We sometimes say, for example, that we like the shirt that is our friend’s favorite when we really don’t; that it’s no trouble to do something when it really is; or that a meal we’re served at a relative’s home is delicious when it’s not something we like. The sweater Grandma made may be ugly but the effort to make it was beautiful. It’s only loving to tell her that puce is our favorite color — and then stow it in the bottom drawer until she visits again. These are the kinds of white lies that make the social world go round.
It’s a big moral concept. But most children do get it when an adult takes the time to explain it with some concrete examples on their age level.
The group agreed that handling disappointment and being kind to a gift giver are important social skills. Up until age 3, “thank you” is a rote response the kids learn from adults. From somewhere between ages 3 and 4 on up, kids can be taught the meaning of gratitude and can learn how to be gracious despite disappointment (at least most of the time). The group brainstormed the following points for the etiquette lessons, adapting them to the age and stage of the child:
- Be sure the adults model gratitude and courtesy.It’s impossible to teach children to be gracious if they are watching their parents and other role models behave badly. Raising children well often means cleaning up our own acts. When we remember to regularly say please and thank you and demonstrate our gratitude both for the gifts we receive and the givers who enrich our lives by their very presence, we provide our children with powerful lessons in both politeness and love. When we thank our children for presents they give us — whether it is a drawing they made or something they purchased — we show them how good it makes people feel to be appreciated.
- Talk to your child about what giving is all about. Ideally, it is an act of love and caring. It’s a way people say, “You’re special to me. I want to make you happy.” Even when a gift is a disappointment, the intention was to please.
- Kids as young as 5 can learn to figure out something positive to say about a disappointing gift.Finding a reason to be grateful when it would be so much easier to get upset is an invaluable life skill. At age 8, Jocey’s son could have said, “I’ll like playing with this fire truck with my little brother.” (At only 3, my son was too young to be that sophisticated when confronted with the robot though he surprised us all by finding a way to make it less scary.) Give your kids some practice by imagining together some outrageous “gifts” and thinking about what positive things they could say to compliment the gift or the giver.
- Teach them that if they can’t find something to like about the gift, they can always focus on the love. Someone loved them enough to think about what to get, to go to the store to buy it, and to wrap it up and deliver it. They can always tell the person that it makes them feel good and special that someone went to all that trouble.
- Emphasize that it’s never, ever, okay to hurt the giver’s feelings. They mustn’t poke fun at the gift or embarrass the giver — even if the giver isn’t there to hear it. Laughing at another’s expense isn’t being funny. It’s just unkind. If those unkind comments get back to the person, it can damage the relationship.
- Reassure your children that if they really, honestly don’t like a gift, they can quietly come to you later to talk about it. Often gifts can be exchanged or a parent can tactfully help the giver better understand what would be a better choice at another time. And sometimes at least, what at first seemed like the most inappropriate, useless gift ever can become a dear reminder of the person who gave it.
Like most things in parenting, teaching children to be grateful and polite is not a one-and-done lesson. It is an ongoing process. With good modeling, practice and reminders, we can raise children who are well-mannered and truly appreciative of the things others do for them.