Thursday, April 26, 2007

Lessons in Social Grace

In my line of work, I get to interact with a wide variety of personalities and am often forced to bite my tongue during those interactions. (The customer is always right...the customer is always right...) But yesterday I had a patient very innocently mention that she was going to the store after her treatment to purchase a baby shower gift. You may be wondering where I am going with this. What a completely normal statement. You would be correct except that she was planning to purchase a gift for the 4 year old sibling of the new baby instead of a gift for the baby.

This sparked a conversation between myself and a co-worker about how our society fosters a sense of entitlement in our children. For example, my son is the first grandchild on both sides the family. For the first few years of his life, my mother-in-law would purchase a separate gift for Nathan regardless of the occasion. He received gifts on Father's Day, everyone else's birthday and several holidays in between. We finally had to explain that Nathan did not need a gift unless it was his birthday. To Trevor and I, the practice of giving a child a gift just because someone else receives one sends a confusing message. Primarily "I deserve a present because I showed up" instead of "I deserve a present because this is a special day celebrating my birth."

I think when parents encourage this sort of behavior it is dangerous for several reasons. First and foremost it lessens the impact of special occasions and those days become more or less run of the mill. Would you really care about birthday presents if you got one every time someone you knew celebrated theirs? There is nothing to look forward to if you get gifts on a regular basis.

Secondly, it stunts the child's ability to be joyful for someone else. I don't know about you, but my natural reaction as a child to someone else receiving a gift was jealousy. We need to allow our children to feel these emotions so we can use the opportunity to teach them the appropriate way to respond. We are by nature self-centered, and joyful giving and rejoicing in other's good fortune has to be taught. How do we teach that lesson if the opportunity is never presented to our children?

Finally, our children need to learn that life is not fair. Sometimes we get the gift, sometimes we don't. The important thing is to teach them to respond gracefully when life throws them a curve ball. I realize that I am talking about material gifts here, but children learn best with concrete ideas and concepts at the beginning. This lesson can be expanded as the years pass to include so many other things that will shape our kids into empathetic, responsible adults.

I know that giving a small child a gift to avoid hurt feelings on a sibling's birthday may seem kind and considerate, but I have to disagree. It is simply delaying the inevitable day when they are excluded at a friend's birthday party and and that self-centered part rears its ugly head. You know what I'm talking about....the screaming child who won't let go of a brightly wrapped present that was never intended for them. The embarrassed look of the parent trying to pry it out of the child's hand without damaging the gift, and trying to gauge how hard they can swat said child without garnering disapproving looks from the other adults.

So, to all the parents out there who think it is harmless to play this game with their children, maybe you should think again. Use the opportunity to teach and nurture rather than ply them with more useless junk that will just accumulate in their bedroom. Wouldn't you rather see an accumulation of social graces that will never fade away and will serve to smooth the way for them in untold situations as they grow?

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