Christmas is for many families an exciting time of year. For children, it is often (along with birthdays) a particular highlight. In addition to being off school, eating particularly delicious meals and spending time with friends and family, there is the expectation of gifts.
Every family is different – and children’s experiences and expectations around festive gift giving can vary greatly. What one child might consider a fantastic haul might bitterly disappoint another. As parents, it can be challenging to finely balance this. Financial pressures, peer pressure and difficulty understanding which exact version of game, which model truck or which outfit for a doll that your child wants can increase the stress of parents. This article will give parents a few tips on how to avoid conflict and how to react if your child expresses jealousy, unhappiness or disappointment in gifts.
Talking about Advertisements
Advertising can influence expectations, and in particular young children can fail to understand that advertisements are trying to get them (or rather, their parents) to buy a product (Oates et al. 2002). In particular, children under the age of 8 struggle to understand the purpose of advertisements, and see them as entertainment, information or helping viewers (Pine, 2007). In addition to this, children may not understand that advertisements may not accurately reflect the size, abilities or functions of a toy. This may lead to inevitable disappointment when an action figure cannot fly, a doll cannot converse or the like. There are advertising standards, which have tightened since the 1990’s, but with the gradual fusing of advertising and entertainment (particularly on social media) it can be difficult for children to know where one stops and the other begins.
Therefore, parents of very young children may want to talk to their children about what ads are, and what they are trying to do. If a parent notices their child watching a TV show, or a YouTube video with ads for toys (or with toys in the content itself), they should consider taking the time to communicate with their child. Ask them if they can tell the difference between the entertainment part and the sales pitch. By working together, you can ensure that children know what to expect from the toys they unwrap on Christmas day.
Children – particularly young children – have little ability to understand the true cost of the items they desire. As their parent, it is up to you to set a reasonable level of expectation in terms of money spent on gifts. This applies as much to gifts from “Santa” as it does gifts from their parents. Dr Dan Peters, a psychologist gives the following suggestions for helping to avoid difficulties:
- Model good behaviour. Your children get their views about getting or giving gifts from you. Be careful about the language you use regarding gifts. Try to talk more about giving gifts, particularly to those in need. Try to focus less on what your children are getting.
- Be aware of what your child is being exposed to. As previously mentioned about advertisements, children hear about gifts from friends, in school and in public. Make sure to challenge any ideas about what is or is not appropriate as soon as you hear them, in a positive way.
- Don’t focus on presents. This is easier said than done. We live in a society that is driven by consumption, but your family can focus on the other aspects of the holidays. Talk to your children about what else they are excited about: spending time with family, food, putting up decorations and the like.
Reacting to negative behaviour
It can be extremely frustrating to hear a child say “I didn’t want this”, “Why did he get the good one and I didn’t?” or “Is that it?” It is entirely natural to be upset, but do not forget in the heat of the moment that it is a child saying these things. Instead of reacting with anger or expressing that frustration, parents should take this as a teaching opportunity.
Firstly, remember that for children, dealing with disappointment can be good for their development. Taylor (2011) notes that children who experience disappointment but are helped to overcome it develop better emotional control, higher levels of confidence and are more motivated. It is normal for parents to want to protect children from disappointment, and few parents will want their child to be disappointed with gifts that they spent money on.
However, as with other aspects of gift giving, dealing with disappointment can be beneficial if parents take the time to communicate with their child. If your child seems unhappy, ask them:
- Why are you unhappy? What were your expectations?
- Do they understand what they have, and have they allowed a small amount of negativity hid a lot of joy?
- Is there anything they can do to address this themselves? Can they ask someone else for help?
Remember that your children develop their coping skills from you. If you are careful not to overreact to disappointment and to calmly express your feelings, they will find it easier to do the same. There are three things a parent should be careful to do if their child is reacting very negatively to a gift;
- Don’t feed into a tantrum. If a child is struggling to control their emotions, take them away to a quiet place and help them to calm down;
- Be careful not to escalate the problem. You understand the full context – how much it cost, how long you waited in line, how far you had to go. Your child often does not. Do not respond to their behaviour by saying or doing anything likely to further upset them;
- Help them to understand – once they have calmed down – why what they did was not ideal. Be patient, and do not try to shame them for their reaction.
There is no simple way to avoid all disappointment at Christmas. Instead of focussing on having a “perfect” holiday season, parents should try to focus on what is in their control. They should take the time to enjoy their family, and move the focus away from getting presents. Most importantly is to enjoy your time together as a family and make the most of all opportunities e.g. get out for a walk in the fresh air, play a board game or watch a family movie. It is likely that these little things will be what your children remember most about when Christmas has been and gone.