What do we do when our little ones don’t quite follow the social etiquette for receiving gifts?    

It’s Christmas and your in-laws have just arrived, bearing gifts for their lovely grandchildren. First, your 9-month-old tears at the wrapping paper, chews on the bow, tosses the gift aside, and crawls into the box to play merrily with her shiny paper.  She shows no interest in Grandma or the carefully selected present, nor can she be convinced to open anything else. 

Let’s say it’s Christmas and your in-laws have just arrived, bearing gifts for their lovely grandchildren. First, your 9-month-old tears at the wrapping paper, chews on the bow, tosses the gift aside, and crawls into the box to play merrily with her shiny paper. She shows no interest in Grandma or the carefully selected present, nor can she be convinced to open anything else.

Next, your three-year-old whines because he wants to play with his baby sister’s new toy instead of his own. Finally, your savvy five-year-old chimes, “Thanks for the doll, Grandma, What’s next?”

Before tearing your hair out, please note that all three of these examples are common responses from children receiving gifts. Here are some guidelines for age-appropriate expectations:

  • Ages 0-1 – Don’t expect them to understand what’s going on, or even to want to interact with relatives who are not present in their everyday life. Stranger anxiety is a hallmark of this age, and even Grandma can look like a stranger to a baby who doesn’t see her very often. Give your baby time to warm up to relatives, and do expect her to prefer the packaging to the gift inside.
  • Ages 2-3 – Children this age still have not developed theory of mind, including the ability to consider anyone else’s feelings; this is why they’re no good at forced sharing.Translation: “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine, too. Either put the baby’s new toy away before her big brother takes interest, or just go ahead and let him play with it. Baby sister won’t care.
  • Ages 4 & up – By now they’ve learned the game, and the big day has finally arrived. Your child can’t wait to see what’s inside the pretty packages, and no matter how many presents are for her, she’ll likely wish for more.

With all the eager anticipation preceding Christmas, and so much emphasis on presents, it’s normal for children to feel disappointed once the gift-giving is over. Prepare your child for the letdown, and emphasize the deeper meaning of the holiday and the joy of family. Try using resources like Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmes (storybook) or Veggie Tales: The Toy that Saved Christmas (DVD).

By Dr. Karen Struble