A few weeks ago, I asked my four-year-old what he should do when he receives a gift.
“Say ‘thank you,’” he replied.
“And what should you do if you receive a gift you don’t like?” I asked.
“Say, ‘no thank you,’” he said matter-of-factly.
Nearly every parent has a mortifying memory in which a child has appeared ungrateful for a gift. And though the ability to express gratitude when they’re just not feeling it is something a young brain isn’t yet equipped to handle, teaching children this skill is possible—and it has long-term developmental benefits.
Learning how to graciously accept a gift—even one you don't want—helps kids understand the connection between someone who loves them and the gift, according to child development experts. But it also teaches important life skills, including the all-important empathy.
“You can have a person IQ of 140 with deficits in empathy, and they won’t be able to collaborate in a team environment, won’t have healthy relationships, might get into trouble with the law,” says Deborah Pontillo, a pediatric psychologist and director of San Diego Kids First. “Empathy is one of the most crucial factors in healthy human relationships.”
Receiving gifts well does not come intuitively for children, but that actually presents an opportunity. Birthdays and other holidays are a great time for parents to teach graciousness and gratitude with simple discussions and role-playing activities around how to receive gifts.
The science behind kids and gift receiving
During a recent visit with their grandfather, Sarah Shtutin’s three kids all received special gifts from him. A Lego set for her oldest, a paint kit and a few small stuffed animals for the youngest. Her middle child, Josie, got two sticker activity books that Shtutin and her father were sure she would like. But it didn’t turn out that way.
“She proceeded to throw a tantrum for over an hour because her gift was the worst,” Shtutin says, “only to play with it for hours the next day.”
Josie isn’t spoiled—it’s just that a kid’s brain hasn’t developed enough to always understand abstract concepts, like the perspectives of others and that gifts are given out of love.
Scientists’ understanding of how kids’ brains develop dates back to renowned child psychologist Jean Piaget, who studied how children develop “perspective taking,” meaning seeing the world from another person’s point of view. Children understand the world differently from adults because they don’t have a fully developed ability to see others’ perspectives, which means they aren’t as able to experience empathy and aren’t fluent in the “theory of mind,” or the idea that people have thoughts, feelings, experiences, and perspectives different from their own.
And the practice of receiving gifts gracefully fits perfectly into this cognitive skill, because kids need to be able to imagine the perspective of the gift giver.
Because children’s ability to think abstractly hasn’t fully developed, their brains focus on a more concrete way of thinking. That’s why, according to Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development, many kids will equate a gift—something physical and concrete they can visualize—to how much someone loves them. So a “bad gift” isn’t something thoughtful from someone who cares about them—it’s a sign that the giver doesn’t understand or love them, or maybe loves another child more.
“Kids don’t connect to the emotions surrounding gift-giving as adults do,” says Marilyn Price-Mitchell, a developmental psychologist and author. “They most often cherish the gift itself rather than the feelings they had when the gift was received.”
Luckily, Pontillo says that Piaget showed that as children develop, their ability to see others’ perspectives becomes more and more sophisticated.
“They develop from being more self-centered in their social development to becoming more reciprocal and socially connected,” she says. “Their social cognition is like any other developmental skill and becomes more sophisticated as they get older, so neurologically they are able to see things from their own perspective first and then others.”
How parents can teach children to be good gift receivers
A child’s brain might not be developed enough to fully appreciate a gift for gift’s sake. But they can be taught it.
“Young kids can’t put themselves in others’ shoes—their developmental focus is on their own needs and wants,” Pontillo says. “But even a three-year-old can begin to be motivated by feelings of others, so in receiving gifts they can learn an appreciation of the other person’s intentions and the effort they went through to give a gift, and then express gratitude.”
For starters, parents can downplay the excitement around receiving gifts. “We intentionally rev kids up,” says Catherine Mogil, clinical director of the UCLA Family Stress, Trauma, and Resilience Clinic. “And then we’re disappointed when they don’t behave. We’re setting them up to fail.”
Then keep an eye out for teachable moments that will help develop a child’s understanding of the intentions of others. For instance, Morgan Fox Seamann remembers her five-year-old brother opening a present from his grandparents, expecting a video game. “He got a robe,” she says. “He started crying and said, ‘What kind of person would give a robe to a kid as a present?’"
That’s a reaction many kids have to gifts from grandparents or other loved ones outside the immediate family. When that happens, Pontillo says that parents can ask children to articulate why they think the gift giver chose that present for them. The conversation might take a laddered approach:
“Why do you think Grandma got you that robe?” “Because she doesn’t know what I like.” “What are some other reasons?” “I didn’t have one.” “And why would she think you need one?” “So I can be warm in the morning.” "And why does Grandma want you to be warm?” “Because she doesn’t want me to be cold.” “And why doesn’t she want you to be cold?” “Because she loves me.”
This can also help when a child feels like a sibling received a better gift than she did. Even if the gift isn’t perfect, Klein says, kids can start to understand the connection between someone who loves them and the gift they’re receiving.
If those loved ones are going to be around when the gifts are opened, parents can practice developing those connections ahead of time. Pontillo suggests letting kids unfold pictures of gifts they might receive, then guessing why someone would give that gift. Start with something exciting—like a new tablet—then work down to clothes and books.
Pontilllo adds that parents can help kids appreciate gifts by showing them the work that went into selecting them. Back to that robe, for example. What are all the things Grandma had to think about and do to get the gift? (Knowing the size, thinking about your favorite color, standing in line at a store, etc.) Then parents can say something like, “Only someone who loves you would do all that.”
Even as parents teach children that gifts come from love, Klein says it’s important to remind them that gifts aren’t the only way to show love. For instance, once a child understands that that robe came from a loving grandma who didn’t want her grandson to be cold, he can then draw pictures or write down all the other ways Grandma shows she loves him: smothering hugs, freshly baked cookies, five-dollar bills, etc.
Families with kids who have learning and thinking differences should make additional preparations, says Bob Cunningham, executive director for learning development at Understood, an organization that supports families and kids with these challenges. That includes eliminating items like wrapping paper, holiday smells, and shiny lights that might aggravate kids with sensory issues. If they struggle with flexible thinking, you also might tell kids what they’ll receive in advance.
And of course, drill in those magic words. Klein recommends telling kids that it’s OK to feel disappointed, but they can still say “thank you” and express their feelings later.
“You can be very simple,” she says. “Tell them, ‘All you have to do is say ‘thank you.’ Even if you're not really happy with the gift, you just say ‘thank you,’ and you can tell me later how much you don't like it.’”