When my son opened his birthday present, his face looked like we’d just shot our dog. We don’t even have a dog. He undid the wrapping, took it out, looked at it, then put it back down, turning his head aside with such a look of sorrow that you’d think we’d cancelled Christmas. Normally, I love how my kids’ faces express every emotion they feel, but this is not good. With extended family coming for Christmas, they have to learn how to feign grateful elation, to convey to the giver that in their wildest dreams and most giddy perusals of those Lego catalogues that come with every damn set they get, they did not expect to receive this. In short, to put on their “present face”.
Do What I Say, Not What I Do
Unfortunately, I am not the best teacher. As my family will testify, it wasn’t till I was about 30 that I mastered my “present face”. I totally get it. You should be grateful for the thought, the expenditure and the effort, whatever the gift. Of course you should. And normally, I am genuinely grateful for every present I am lucky enough to receive. I’m not a spoilt cow. But when you are given a top in a colour you never wear/ that is two sizes too big, or a book on housekeeping (true! this happened to me!), it can sometimes be hard not to feel a little affronted. Do they know me so little? Do I really look that fat? Is my house really that filthy? Luckily, I’ve now learnt that there is no ‘I’ in present. And that if someone has bothered to buy me a present, it is not with the intention of upsetting me.
So, I want my kids to be better than me, to make up for my shameful ungraciousness. But it doesn’t work to teach them about the less fortunate at their age (my oldest is six). I am constantly reminding them of the poor children who don’t even have food or water, let alone presents. They can grasp this: they are sorry and compassionate, and are proud to support the fundraising drives at school and in the high street. But they can’t connect it to their own need to receive not only a present, but the perfect present.
Spoilt brats, or just kids?
Although their ingratitude makes me hysterical and feel I have failed, yet again, to bring them up well, I get this too. With (obviously!) no access to cash nor means to earn it, birthdays and Christmas are the only times they get new stuff (apart from the occasional Sunday when Daddy is hungover in Toys R Us). So to get the wrong thing is a crushing disappointment. They’re only little, after all. Not spoilt, just kids.
But my oldest took it a bit far at his birthday recently, when he actually started crying before he opened one present – because it wasn’t big enough. What with him and his brother’s “dead dog” face, my work is cut out! I don’t want to teach them to be deceitful, but I think it is perfectly acceptable to invoke the gentle sanction of “no nice smiles, no TV”. I’m loath to micromanage people’s generosity and take away their pleasure in giving by suggesting / dictating what they should buy the children (unless specifically asked, in which case, I have a prepared list). Although I know this would be an obvious answer, of course I think it’s more important that the boys learn to appreciate whatever they’re given. However, until that inner maturity is reached, I’m working on their “present face”.
Note: My long-term readers will recognise this from a couple of years ago – but let me tell you, the present face is still not there yet!