The Present Game

Christmas 2004. I cringe a little when I think about it. That was the Christmas when my beautiful, normally well-behaved children, ages 4 and 3, became greedy little monsters.

I thought that this would be the year that they “got” Christmas. What they got was the gimmees.

It started with our second extended-family Christmas party. I guess the first party was just a warm-up, but by that second party, they had the whole Christmas thing figured out: people give you stuff. A lot of stuff.

At that party, gifts that had been carefully selected for them by generous grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were quickly received, torn open and tossed aside as they scoped out the next box labeled with their name. Abandoned clothing, toys and books lay scattered around them as I spent the whole party reminding them to say thank you and reassuring the gift-givers that their selections were appreciated and would be welcome additions to the kids’ toy boxes and closets. I was appalled.

As soon as the Christmas season ended, I saw my daughter’s early-February birthday looming on the calendar and I knew that I needed to take some action. The kids needed an opportunity to practice the art of graciously receiving a gift. I came up with a simple game that the kids and I could play together, which they quickly dubbed “The Present Game.”

Here’s how we played:

1. Each player (typically myself and the two kids, but sometimes the kids would play by themselves) starts with an empty gift bag left over from Christmas or a birthday party.

2. Each player is assigned another person to shop for.

3. All players look around the house for one item to give to their assigned person. It can be anything that fits in the bag, and it’s just for fun – not for keeps.

4. Once the shopping is complete, we exchange gifts one at a time. The gift recipient must say thank you as soon as they receive the gift, then open it and give the giver a sincere compliment about the gift.

5. Once all the gifts are exchanged, we repeat the process and put our old gifts away as we search for new ones. We play as long as everyone is having fun.

Sounds simple, right? Well, instruction number 4 is where it gets interesting, and where the learning came in. Sometimes it’s easy to be thankful for a gift. Upon receiving a favorite stuffed animal, my son might tell his sister, “Thank you for the bear. It will be really cuddly to sleep with tonight.” However, sometimes the compliment is a challenge. What do you say upon receiving a dog biscuit, or a spoon?

The kids quickly became adept at looking at the bright side of any gift they received. Upon receiving her toothbrush in the gift bag, my daughter might comment that it’s really important to brush your teeth, or notice that a favorite cartoon character is printed on it. When receiving a single sock, my son might say that it will come in handy the next time Mom loses one of his socks in the laundry. The kids got creative in noting things that were a pretty color or small enough to fit in a pocket. They had fun with the challenge of finding something positive about each item they pulled from the bag – even gifts that they would not have requested.

The game was a rousing success at our house and the kids often requested it at playtime. We kept a few empty gift bags in our toy box for whenever they felt like playing on their own. I felt like they had really learned how to graciously accept a gift, and the importance of expressing appreciation for someone who had taken the time to select something special just for you. They played so often that thankful words became a good habit that I would see evidenced throughout the coming years of birthdays and holidays.

However, there was another lesson lurking in this game that I hadn’t even intended: the kids learned the joy of giving. They loved walking around the house, searching for the perfect gift. Sometimes their intentions were sweet and they would give each other favorite items that were sure to be liked. Sometimes they gave thoughtful, practical gifts. Often, they went for the laugh. (Giving underwear was considered particularly hilarious at this age.)

Whatever type of item they chose, they were always excited about presenting that secret thing in the gift bag to someone else and watching them open it. Whenever I asked, “Who wants to go first?” the kids knew that I was asking who wanted to be the first to give a gift, not to receive. They were both excited to watch the other person’s reaction to their choice, even more than they wanted to see what they were about to get.

And if they ever forgot to say thank you, the other quickly reminded them.

Mission Accomplished.

—Stacy Falk is a contributor to Northlight Nannies and previously published this helpful article in Family Fun magazine.  You can read more of her writings at: The Many Adventures of Road Trip Mom.

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