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Why ‘Getting’ Gifts Can Be Really Hard For Children

Not all kids have the emotional tools necessary to deal with disappointment.

When I was six-years-old, my older brother gave me two baseballs for Christmas. He wrapped them in orange tissue paper and told me they were oranges. And even though a simple squeeze would have revealed the good-natured fib, I believed him. In fact, I spent the whole week wallowing in such disappointment that by the time I unwrapped them on Christmas Eve, I was inconsolable. Even though my teary eyes could clearly see they weren’t oranges. Even though I absolutely loved baseball. Somehow, my irrational six-year-old brain couldn’t make the emotional switch from disappointment and anger to joy and happiness, even in the light of clear evidence. I remained furious.

I was also mean and ungrateful. And even though I was just a kid, I still cringe at my behavior almost 40 years later. My brother was a teenager at the time and old enough to fully feel the sting of my rejection. I can’t imagine he still remembers the exchange, or even cares at this point having now raised three kids of his own, but it remains forever burned in my memory. I’m convinced it’s why every gift I receive today ⏤ no matter how much it sucks ⏤ is met with unbridled gratitude. “A bag of peas! Awesome, I love peas!

My brother was no stranger to Christmas disappointment himself. For years, he asked my parents for very specific gifts ⏤ a slot-car racing set, a BMX bicycle, certain cool clothes ⏤ and every year my mom would look at the list and think, we can do better! Instead of small race cars, he got the giant ones; instead of a BMX bike, he got a Schwinn 10-speed. As a teenager, I kid you not, my mom bought him a blue blazer and khaki pants, as if he was about to interview for membership at a yacht club. I remember being with her in the store when she picked them out ⏤ I might have been seven at the time ⏤ and thinking, even I know this is a bad idea.

Of course, my mom’s gifts were always given out of love and her goal was clear: to give us an amazing Christmas. And, honestly, her logic made sense. If he wanted this simple gift, why wouldn’t he want this better awesome gift even more? But my brother didn’t; he wanted the cheaper, the easier, the toy he and his friends were actually playing with. He was always good at putting on a happy face (clearly much better than me), but you could tell he was disappointed. Eventually, it didn’t matter what the gift was ⏤ he was hardwired to assume it was going to miss the mark.

Thankfully, my mom learned from years of trying to do too much for my brother, and as a result, rarely deviated when buying gifts for my younger sister and I. We clearly have him to thank. They still laugh about all the bad presents, and it remains a running joke in our family.

Now a parent myself, it’s easy to understand exactly where my mom was coming from. As much as it is to forget that little people can’t always process disappointment in a rational way. You want your child to have an amazing Christmas and love all of their gifts and you’re often willing to go to extraordinary (and often unreasonable) measures to make that happen, even if they’re too young to remember the day. But expectations are real and emotional regulation is real and getting gifts and reacting reasonably to them is really, really hard.

If I learned one thing from my mom, it’s the danger not only of trying too hard but of straying too far off the path. That’s not to say you have to give your kid exactly what they ask for ⏤ not at all ⏤ but it does help to recognize that they’re entering the morning with a set of expectations. And that not every gift will hit the mark, no matter how amazing you think it is. It’s more important to remember that kids are irrational beings with developing emotions who are still learning to handle disappointment. They may not react the way you expect, and that’s totally fine.

And if I learned one thing from my six-year-old self, it’s the importance of teaching kids how to accept gifts graciously. To say thank you and to appreciate the simple fact that somebody thought enough to give them a gift, even if it is just two damn pieces of fruit.