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My Son Doesn't Want Surprise Gifts This Christmas

By Sarah Liebetrau - 27th November 2012

This year, there will be no surprises at Christmas time for my six year old son. No, he hasn’t been a ‘naughty boy’ and therefore undeserving of Santa’s generosity. And as much as I agree with the sentiment behind those noble endeavours of other parents to avoid over commercialising the holiday, it’s not that. The reason my son will have no surprises is that he will choose all of his presents and be with us when we buy them, in November. They will then be wrapped and put under the Christmas tree.

I know this is an approach that may jar with some. Why bother with the presents if it’s not a surprise? Doesn’t that kind of spoil the point of giving gifts? Shouldn’t he be taught to be grateful for what he’s given? Isn’t the idea behind a gift that someone has thought about  what you would like, and  carefully chosen something appropriate,  just for you? Well, yes and no. These may be the ideals behind present giving and receiving among adults, and indeed children too. But not my child.

My child does not like surprises and he has told me as much. He doesn’t like anything about them. Not the waiting, the anticipation, the not-knowing, the hoping. He doesn’t like the idea that on Christmas day, he will open a present, and even if it is one thing he really wanted, there are a whole bunch of things he was imagining that it is not . He doesn’t like the ingratitude this provokes in him. (He didn’t express this sentiment in quite that way, but I am prepared to paraphrase on his behalf). What my son has clearly communicated to me is that he wants to be involved in the purchasing of presents  to be given to him so that he knows what to expect and can manage his emotions around this event. So he can be realistic about what is coming, and what that might feel like.

I am pretty proud of my son for having the maturity to recognise how and why he would like things to be a certain way and to be able to state his case.  This is the same child who told me when he was four that he wanted to stay in preschool one more year and would “go to school when I am five turning six; four is too young.” And he was right about that too. He knows his own mind. I think he is trying to reduce the anxiety around a big event like Christmas and I hope this will increase his own emotional resilience. He knows that if he provides a long list and I choose one or two items, he will be fretting ahead of time about which items they are and which he will miss out on. There are not many things he really gets passionate about so he doesn’t want to pad the list out just to be ‘surprised’.

He is prepared to do the hard yards and, after inspecting and approving the gifts, wait a whole month to play with them. That kind of delayed gratification is not easy, even for an adult. Imagine buying yourself a new gadget or piece of clothing and putting it away in the cupboard, knowing it’s there but not to be touched for a month. He is willing to do that, as he knows he must, in order to have some agency in the process. He would rather be concrete about what he can and can’t have than leave it to chance and risk his imagination running away with him, only to be inevitably disappointed when the big day finally arrives. He knows he has the potential to be overwhelmed by possibility.

I did not agree straight away. I gave it some thought. My husband and I discussed it. It’s not particularly traditional. This year we will not be the parents doing the midnight run to the toy shop and coming home to smuggle gifts into hiding places. Unconventionally, we bought the presents in full view of our kids and with their final agreement that “this is the thing you really really want”, took them home and put them away. 

My four year old daughter came along for the ride, because, as with many familial dynamics, it’s often the one who feels the strongest whose argument holds the most sway. In this case, Mr 6 had definite and strong opinions on the matter, and his considered reasoning was enough for us to fly in the face of everything we had come to believe about Christmas gifts.

Over the past several months both children  compiled a Christmas list for consideration. After a while, some things lost their appeal, while others remained on the list.  Those things that stayed the distance then had to pass the dual tests of being affordable and available. The final hurdle was whether it was something they would  play with for a while or whether it was more of a ‘fad toy.’ The number of items on the list ended up being relatively few.

Santa will still deliver, but there will only be one item requested (a dress up costume), and that is what the elves will make.

I hope that in acquiescing to his requests, we are helping my son enjoy Christmas that much more, rather than taking the fun out of it. He might even learn some lessons about the value of considering how much you want something before buying it.  Personally, I love surprises and enjoy the sensation of opening something wondering what it might contain; but I have to acknowledge that we all operate in different ways.  I think this system makes my son more, rather than less, appreciative of what he is being given, and ensures less guesswork for us, and no chance that the toy will be discarded within weeks or hours of Christmas Day.

It’s worth a try. If it all goes pear-shaped, we can revert back to surprises next year. Of course, there’s every chance I might sneak one tiny surprise in this year, just in case.

Image from freedigitalphotos.net

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