When your baby starts to rip into their first wrapped gift, whether it’s for their birthday or a holiday, the ripping is usually their favorite part, followed by playing with the box in the aftermath. They relish every aspect of receiving a gift and don’t usually acknowledge the giver. But like many social concepts, gifts are a process and eventually your kids will learn not only to thank the giver, but to give gifts themselves to their teachers, friends and of course, family. For parents, teaching kids to really understand gift giving is a feat. One that takes time and understanding. So let’s break down the development so we can patiently teach our kids this social grace.
While it’s normal for it to take some time, eventually, they’ll comprehend gift-giving. My twins, age 9, now beg to be taken to the store to use their own money to purchase gifts whenever it’s someone’s birthday party or their favorite jolly holiday. At Christmas they wrap the gifts themselves and walk to the tree, arms full of boxes, saying ho-ho-ho. Being givers now fills their hearts — maybe even more than being on the receiving end. But this wasn’t always the case. Not too long ago, they only cared about what they would be getting.
Why young kids only care about receiving gifts
Infants are completely helpless and catered to from birth, so naturally, they are absorbed with their needs and wants being met. It takes some time and maturity to shift their perspective. “Young kids especially still have not learned that others have needs and wants that do not align with their own,” says Amy Marschall, a child psychologist and parenting consultant. “Their own experience is the only thing they are aware of before they have developed an understanding that other people need, want, or possess things too.”
But when it clicks for them, you’ll have a sweet giver, not a grumpy grabber. So when do they mature enough that understanding the concept that other people have their own needs takes hold?
When do kids really understand gift giving?
Honestly, the moment one of my chubby-fingered babies offered me one of their saliva-coated Cheerios, it may as well have had a bow on it because I melted. But it may have been a little too early for me to assume they were understanding gift giving, which mostly happens during the early school years.
“It really varies, but elementary-age kids usually understand gift giving and receiving,” says Marschall. “Initially, they develop an understanding of this is something we do, which then grows into understanding why we give gifts and why it is important.”
If you’re wondering how to recognize exactly when they begin to grasp what it means to intentionally make or purchase something special for another person, it isn’t clean cut. It is “something that we learn over time,” Marschall says.
How to teach your kids to understand gift giving
There are, however, things we can do as parents to help our kids at any age understand that giving and receiving gifts is good manners and how we show others we care about them. And just like every other time we want to teach our kiddos something new, we approach it at a level that makes sense for them (age-wise) while exposing them to the concept.
“Like a lot of things, I think you are never too young to learn about gift giving,” Marschall says. To start, “babies and toddlers are not going around picking out presents, shopping, et cetera, but including their name on the card or package and showing them, ‘Look what you're giving [relative]!’ can show them what gift giving looks like and reinforce that this is something we do for the people we care about,” she says.
Instead of dropping a present in a pile at the next birthday party, consider bringing your child over to the birthday boy or girl, and together giving the gift or letting your child give the gift directly.
Marschall also recommends the book, A Little Spot Of Giving, by Diane Alber. This is a great book to read aloud to your kids. It is pegged as a tool to help your kids get in the spirit of Christmas or any other gift-giving occasion. But it also expands the idea of gift giving to thoughtful gestures and non-material things.
Modeling the behavior you are trying to teach is one of the most effective methods for training children. Keep up a running dialogue with your kids when you are doing something for someone else or giving a gift. Ask for ideas and talk about how you come up with ideas for giving. By modeling thoughtfulness and including your children in the process, you can find small ways to emphasize gift giving. And don’t forget the most important lesson of all, giving gifts, of your time, money, effort, or thought, is all about showing love to each other.
Amy Marschall, Psy.D., child psychologist and parenting consultant