Boy rips into gifts, embarrasses parents


By the time Christmas was over last year, I felt like a failure as a mother. My 7-year-old ripped through his gifts, hardly even looking at them, just wanting to know where the next gift was. He made several ungrateful comments that were extremely embarrassing. The same thing happened the year before. What are we doing wrong?



Limit the number of gifts your child receives and lengthen the amount of time it takes to open them, say parents who called Child Life with their own not-so-fond holiday memories of selfish or greedy children.

Up to the age of 8 or 9, children are extremely self-centered, says Susan Newman, author of "Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day" (Crown, $12.50).

While parents can take comfort in knowing their child's behavior is normal, they also need to seize the opportunity to teach respect for others' feelings and practice good manners, Newman says.

It may be helpful if you simplify holiday festivities to lower stress and emphasize the true meaning of the holiday celebrated in your home, whether it is Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa.

Instead of letting the wrapping paper fly, insist on each member of the family taking turns opening one gift at a time, suggests Bridget Harris, a reader from San Antonio.

"That way, everybody sees everybody's presents, and the person who gets the gift appreciates it more," Harris says.

Families have many variations on the one-gift-at-a-time rule, but all emphasize thankfulness.

At Bonnie Clark's Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, home, the gift-giver hands the gift to the recipient.

At Ann Dryden's Minneapolis home, the children play elves and pass out one gift at a time.

In Powhatan, Va., Arla Halpin's husband acts as "master of ceremonies," handing out gifts. Then each gift is passed around for everyone to see before the next is opened.

Parents should also consider limiting the number of gifts their child receives, says Charlene Mizner, a parent from Tacoma, Wash. The more presents an overindulged child gets, the less he appreciates them.

If possible, talk to relatives beforehand and ask them not to buy as much or buy one large group gift for your child. Or consider drawing names, advises Susan Still of Dunwoody, Ga.

Parents should set guidelines for themselves as well, recommends Patricia Schiff Estess, co-author of "Kids, Money & Values" (Betterway Books, $10.95). Estess suggests that parents give their children three gifts, one the child wants, one the child needs and one to be used later, such as tickets to a play or sporting event.

"While it's something revealed at Christmas, it's not something touched at Christmas so the whole spirit of the holiday lasts a longer period of time," Estess says.

It may also help to shift the emphasis of the holiday from getting to giving, advises Estess, of New York City, who writes extensively on families, values and money.

L Glenna Graeff of Phoenix has seen it work with her children.

"I take the kids with me to shop for gifts and they are thrilled when the person opens it," Graeff says. "Now they take other people's feelings into consideration when they open their Christmas gifts."

Finally, have a preholiday chat with your child about the meaning of gift-giving, Newman says.

Ideally, that chat should occur periodically, says Elizabeth Miller of Torrance, Calif., who role-plays scenarios with her daughter so she'll know what to say if she gets a duplicate gift or something she doesn't like.

Here are more ideas:

Involve your children in helping prepare, purchase and deliver gifts or meals to the poor, Mizner suggests. "We started a new tradition feeding the homeless on Christmas Day. It was an eye-opener for my daughter."

Borrow from the Jewish tradition and have children open one gift each day leading up to Christmas, says Karen Engelbertson of St. Paul, Minn. Or follow the traditional 12 days of Christmas and open one gift each day until Epiphany, says Milton J. Schul of Peachtree City, Ga.

Or, as Newman recommends, allow the child to open gifts as he receives them in the mail or as friends and relatives stop by before the holiday.

Satisfy the children's zest for opening by letting them dig into their stockings, then insist on more orderly festivities the rest of the day.

Can you help?

Here's a new question from a parent who needs your help. If you have tips, or if you have questions of your own, please call our toll-free hot line any time at (800) 827-1092. Or write to Child Life, 2212 The Circle, Raleigh, N.C. 27608, or send e-mail to

Take the bite out: "My sister was visiting me and asked if I knew how she could get her 11-year-old daughter to stop biting her fingernails," says a reader who identified himself as "Uncle in San Francisco." "I didn't know what to say, so I thought maybe the readers of your column could help. Could you please give me some hints?"

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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