What to Do When Your Kids Hate Their Christmas Presents

Handling disappointment with grace is a two-way street.

Posted Dec 23, 2019

We rush around for the holidays, wanting to make everything cheery and bright for our kids — and then they utter the words that make all of that rushing feel just plain awful. What are the words?

Well, most of us might not actually hear the words:

"Is that all?" Or, "you got me this?" 

They're uttered audibly on the outside, but we may feel them viscerally as they are delivered with the most parsimonious of facial expressions of dislike that Malcolm Gladwell could have written about in his book, Blink.

The judgments are instantaneous and unmistakable: yay or nay. And when it’s nay, it’s nay for all. Disappointment can suck the air out of any room — whether decorated for the holidays or not.  

I tell my daughters that I am writing a blog post about what to do when your kids hate their holiday gifts. “Isn’t that a little hypocritical?” one of them asks.

Well, yes, I said, but I am putting that in the post. And here I am.

What exactly did she mean by hypocritical? Was she referring to the fact that I am somewhat difficult to buy a gift for? Because, yes, as my husband and kids can attest, yes, yes, I am. Or, was my daughter referring to the fact that I’ve been in a slight overdrive full-on lecture mode when my kids have not responded to a gift the way I hoped they would? Well, yes on that one, too. She’s witnessed how quickly they can whisk away the wrapping paper to reuse next year. I’m thinking: "How can you not be more grateful?" Gifts are a privilege, sitting atop a privileged life. Oh my goodness, you can imagine that my kids could give you an earful about what it’s like to have me as a mom. And I have great kids!

Disappointment really is a two-way street. Our kids (or spouse) may be disappointed in our gift, and we are disappointed about the disappointment.

How that disappointment is handled is also a two-way street. We may object to our kids’ displays of ungraciousness. But if you’re like me, our delivery of feedback to that ungraciousness might be equally ungracious and unhelpful in advancing the cause of greater graciousness all around.

So I’m going to try something radical this year: Rather than let all of this play out with surprise and dismay, I’m going to expect that this experience is one of many possibilities and also, not a huge deal. I’m going to try to just go with it. Giving a gift isn’t like signing a contract. The intention is love and not conditional. Sometimes it’s glorious, but when it’s not and it’s a mismatch, it’s not wrong, it just is.

My mentor for this hefty aspiration is none other than Farmer Hoggett in the movie, Babe. The first Babe movie. The more innocent one. The dollhouse scene to be specific. For those of you who are not in their mid 50s and haven’t watched the movie an equal number of times to your age — I will refresh your memory and have the clip here as well (start at 1:05).

Throughout the movie, we see Farmer Hoggett, played to perfection by James Cromwell, assiduously building a dollhouse for his young granddaughter. He builds, he paints, he decorates. During an underhanded scheme between a territorial cat and the innocent just-wants-to-be-loved pig Babe, the dollhouse is demolished. Babe has paint on his nose. The cat looks on in superior disbelief. Farmer Hoggett rebuilds. He repaints. He redecorates.

Come Christmas morning, the masterpiece is unveiled. His granddaughter pulls the wrapping paper off to reveal the elaborate creation. Piercing shrieks are immediately heard that last for seconds, and then Grandma Hoggett asks, "What's wrong dear?" Unleashing this: “It's the wrong one! I wanted the one on television!” And then cut to Farmer Hogget’s face. He just has an amused grin. How can that be humanly possible? Apparently, it is.

Now, being realistic, I get lost in the fantasy of movies. I do know he (James Cromwell) didn’t actually build that dollhouse. Farmer Hoggett is fictional. Maybe if he had, he wouldn’t be so Buddha-like. Still, I think there is something there.

As much as Farmer Hoggett put his whole heart into making that gift, that wasn’t a guarantee that it would be loved, not right away, and maybe not at all.

Part of giving a gift to kids is teaching them how to appropriately respond. They may not get it right the first time, or even the tenth, but if your spirit can remain generous and slightly Buddha detached, they may learn faster.

Now if they are rude—maybe they are having a strong reaction, one that with some coaching we might “Farmer Hoggett-it” a little. Step back from the fray and think: "Ok, this is just what’s happening." Don’t work hard to reassure, but don’t put effort into arguing either. Rather, take this as one of those moments of life of mutual dealing with disappointment and not the representation of everything about your child, or about you, or about your relationship.

We might respond with that detached narrator voice that we all are seeking in our mindfulness practices: that of a trusted, unbiased, and maybe even a little under-reactive (in the not creating drama sense) newspaper reporter stating the facts. But maybe it’s a teaching moment if we can summon some of Farmer Hoggett’s equanimity, saying calmly say to our kids: “That’s not what you wanted. I thought that you would love it. Ok. Good to know. Can you say it in a way that doesn’t hurt Grandpa’s feelings?”

If they can’t come up with the lines themselves, start them off, speak slowly, and see if they can jump in at any point and fill in the blanks with something like: “Thank you for the gift, and I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”

Separate the intention from the result. Because even in the tightest-knit of families, there may be gift disappointment. Like any irrational thought — it feels so big until we live with it a little and then we see that in the pointillism that makes up the story of our lives — this isn’t a big blotch, but just a tiny smudge. In the scheme of things, it's not life-changing.

And maybe after speaking her truth so vociferously, Farmer Hoggett’s granddaughter’s did later apologize to her grandfather. One can always hope.

But truthfully, maybe putting all the pressure on the holiday gift reveal to teach your child about gratitude is too heavy a load for one day. You could spread the lesson over the year. Help put the gift-giving in the context that you wish your kids to have — not confusing love or satisfaction with material possessions. Broadening the scope and thinking of the spirit of giving to others, to include thinking and acting on behalf of those who are in vulnerable and in need.

This is my idealistic life. And it’s what I’m striving for. My kids will complain. I may complain. I will fail at this. Navigating the mutual disappointment thing. But I’ll keep trying. I may just improve and bump the needle a bit in my Buddha-nature. Or not. But I’ll try to have compassion for myself and everyone else, either way. Are you with me?

Wishing everyone warm, happy holidays, and courage and patience in the life-long process of teaching life lessons — to our kids and ourselves!

Looking for more ideas like this? Please subscribe to my newsletter at tamarchansky.com and check out Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking, Second Edition coming January 2020!

©2019 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.