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.