Kids responding to gifts: where honesty and kindness collide

We’ve all experienced it, though I’m not sure anyone has come up with a name for it. The Christmas Cringe? The Seasonal Squirm? Mortified Yuletide?

Whatever we call it, it's that moment when your child gets a gift from a well-meaning family member...and it immediately becomes clear that your child won’t like the gift. Maybe they already have one. Or it was last year's popular toy and has lost its appeal. Or it's just not appropriate because your son is into skateboards and not baseball, but how could they have known?

It's any of those things. Your kid opens the gift, the disappointment registers, and then what? Will the honesty you've been teaching them about shine through in blunt-force color?

"I already have this."

"I don't like this."

"I don't want this."

Children are the plce where honesty and politeness collide, and the holidays are one of our biggest danger zones.

This is one of the trickiest parts of parenting for us. Mark and I prize honesty—with each other, with our kids, with our friends. We’re teaching our kids how important it is to be truthful. But it seems as soon as we tell our kids they should always tell the truth, we end up finding ourselves in a social setting where the truth can be mean. Where politeness dictates that telling the absolute truth isn’t always the best choice.

Whether we admit it or not, adults know that telling white lies is an important social skill. It may be a form of deception, but it’s a “prosocial” deception. It has a purpose—to show empathy, to not hurt feelings, to put another person first above our own interests.

Christmas is a time when kids enter these kinds of social settings. They get gifts from people they don’t know (unfamiliar relatives) who have high expectations of them. They will also encounter family members or work colleagues who may be different from us. These relatives might be bald, obese, old, or in a wheelchair. How do we tiptoe through this politeness minefield with young, filterless kids?

The answer—at least for Mark and me—is that we hand them some filters on a silver platter.

Filter #1: How would this make them feel? This is a big one for us. We talk a lot about empathy, how it’s important to look at things from another person’s perspective. In regular discussions about other people or cultures, we ask the kids to explore this question: “What must the world be like from this person’s point of view?” Once they start to think in that way, we talk about how an adult might feel if they spent time shopping for a gift—only for a kid to roll her eyes at it and toss it to the side after opening it. When our kids receive a gift at Christmas or a birthday party, we’ve taught them (hopefully) to look the gift-giver in the eye and say a simple “thank you.” No other elaboration is necessary.

Filter #2: Some things don’t have to be said out loud. Another filter we discuss pretty often is that there are some things that are OK to think in your head, but not always OK to say out loud. How would it make someone feel if you told them you already have the same toy? How would they feel if you said out loud that you don’t like this toy any more? Those things may be true—and they are things our kids are free to tell us in the car on the way home—but that doesn’t mean we have to say it out loud in front of the person. Some things we keep to ourselves because we’re being polite and kind and considerate.

Filter #3: We don’t comment on the appearance of others. This is crucial when meeting new people, whether at Christmas parties or family get-togethers. You’re bound to encounter someone who has a physical difference, like a wheelchair or a lazy eye or even a missing limb. Again, we’re trying to teach our kids not to say anything about the difference or to stare at it. Instead, we’ve taught them to look the person in the eye, greet them politely, and be ready to ask a question unrelated to the difference. “Do you like Minecraft?” is a question my kids have busted out before. Or—perhaps more appropriate for most adults—“what books do you like to read?” We’ve tied this to empathy yet again. How frustrating must it be for a person in a wheelchair to always be asked about being in a wheelchair? Instead of commenting on it, let’s talk about something else.

That’s our approach, and we’ve navigated it with some degree of success. It keeps us from having to tell our kids to lie outright in the name of politeness, because there’s a distinct difference between saying something untrue and not saying something at all.

I’m interested, though, in how you approach this tricky parenting subject? How are you teaching your kids about politeness and the truth? How do you let them know brutal honesty isn’t always welcome in certain social situations...without unintentionally telling them lying is OK?

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