Happy boy, sad boy on scooter – Handling kids’ present expectations at Christmas

Are your kids’ Christmas expectations too high?

On Christmas Day, what you do if one of your children thinks their brother or sister's present is better than their own? 

If kids become resentful and envious about what a sibling (or cousin or friend) has got for Christmas, the first thing parents need to work out is whether that’s really the issue, or whether they’re in fact upset or annoyed about something else but don’t know how to express it.   

If it’s simply a matter of the child not getting what they wanted, then our challenge as parents is this: how do we demonstrate to children that they are loved without falling into the trap of expressing that only through material possessions? And when children are growing up in a world of consumerism, where things are being acquired all the time by their family and friends, how can we help them understand that problems can arise when we start comparing ourselves to others? 

Of course, it’s sensible for parents to aim for equity in terms of not only the approximate value of the gifts but also similar interest-value and being somewhere in line with a child’s expectations. However, you can only go so far to try to be fair and reasonable. There’s always the potential for a discrepancy between what children want and what’s possible.

Parents need to find a balance between giving kids gifts they will enjoy and perhaps have been hoping for, and what’s realistic, reasonable and affordable.                                                                                    

The tough message for parents to get across to kids is that it’s perfectly okay for them to not always get what they want. This is not the easiest thing for kids, and some adults, to understand — more so in a world where advertising tells us that we should have, and that we deserve, only the best. Kids who are the target of many marketing and advertising messages can get picky and demanding, based on an advertising-shaped view of the world.

My overall feeling is that as parents, we have a responsibility to not simply succumb to marketing pressure and to show our children that there is another way to view the situation. The “I want” mentality, and the associated idea that having fewer or less expensive possessions is somehow associated with worth as a person — I think this is a very unfortunate state of affairs and as parents we may want to counter this influence. 

The same sort of thinking also applies to wrecking toys or leaving them out in the rain or pestering Mom and Dad to get that really expensive thing that’s forgotten by the end of Boxing Day. It’s good for kids to look after their belongings so they last longer, and to consider big purchases carefully, rather than thinking everything is disposable and replaceable with the latest model. (It’s also better for both the environment and parents’ wallets!) 

All families have to live within their means. And it’s also important to learn that accepting and appreciating a gift is a way of being considerate of others’ feelings. As kids, we may have heard our own parents or grandparents express these ideas by saying things like “it’s the thought that counts” and “it’s better to give than to receive”. 

So while it may have been rediscovered lately, gratitude is nothing new. Receiving gifts gratefully and graciously is a social skill. It’s about learning things like not crowing and showing off the latest toy or game in a way that would make another child feel left out or inadequate. And it’s also about not whining or complaining, or being grudging with thanks, if Grandma or Uncle Jack has inadvertently given a present which the child finds less than thrilling. 

If that happens, parents need to make sure that they’re giving the kids a clear message that kicking up a stink is not acceptable and it’s hurtful to the person who has given the gift. 

Parents should take notice of how the child is responding to this as a social situation. And it might just be a little reminder that your child needs to practise the skill of being grateful a bit more in their other everyday interactions. 

Remember, these are skills that can be learned; they can be practised. Children can still have all the wonderful excitement and fun of the day — and a deeper understanding of giving and receiving will only add to their enjoyment as they grow older.