Thanks For The Ugly Gift

I bought my grandson a gorgeous sweater. I asked the clerk to wrap it in special race-car paper and tie it with a huge red bow. When Timmy worked his five-year old fingers, and completed the opening, he tossed the sweater on the floor.

“It’s clothes again!”

I was hurt. His mother was embarrassed.

We teach our children by example. Other lessons also have to be explained. What do you do when you receive a gift you don’t like? (On my last birthday, my husband gave me a very small green blouse with orange fish swimming on the front of it.)  We learn from an early age not to hurt feelings; to tell little white lies (“Thanks, honey, it’s me – I love it!”). And that’s part of the problem.

Dr. Victoria Talwar says we are teaching our grandchildren to lie.

Dr. Talwar is an assistant professor at McGill University in Montreal who leads a team of researchers studying children’s cognitive social development (especially how children learn and develop different social behaviors, such as honesty, politeness and understanding the feelings and beliefs of other people). Believing that children start lying at about age two or three, Dr. Talwar says, “Children may at first tell lies because they are told to be polite by their parents…”.

Are our polite white lies unintentional lessons in lying? Can we direct a grandchild’s behavior to both be gracious and truthful?

Of course, we don’t want to hurt the feelings of others. The trick is to be kind without lying. It takes a bit of finesse – and practice – but it is not difficult to do, once we learn how.

In her research lab, Dr. Talwar runs an experiment in which children play games to win a present. The gift is a bar of soap. After the initial shock the researcher asks the child how they like it. About one quarter of preschoolers can lie that they like the gift. By elementary school this goes up to half.

“Often parents are proud that their kids are ‘polite’ — they don’t see it as lying”, Talwar remarks. She would agree that the children are being polite. She would like to see them able to do so without being glib or insincere.

If we used a no-lie-ethic, an appropriate reaction would be: “It’s fun to be the one to win the prize”. Polite. No lies.

Every Thursday, I meet with eight other grandmothers. Among us, we have over five hundred years of life experience. I asked them what they do about gift-giving, how they teach their grandchildren to be gracious recipients.

Karen Miller had prints of Beatrix Potter’s wonderful bunnies framed for each family of her grandchildren. She wrote special messages on the backs, but she knew that because the children were quite young, they would not fully appreciate the sentiment and meaning behind the gifts. She decided to present the prints to the mothers. The mothers demonstrated the proper enthusiasm, and the grandkids followed suit.

By handing the gift to the Mothers, Karen facilitated the mothers’ demonstrations of a proper response. (The mothers all said how wonderful it was for Karen to have given the grandchildren such unusual, thoughtful presents, and they mentioned how loving were Karen’s notes on the back of the prints. Mothers also said to thank Grandma by giving her a big smooch.)

Jamie Pavey proposed talking about occasions ahead of time. Teaching without preaching – by telling funny stories. (“When your Mother was little, one of her aunts always gave her socks…”). Kids love these tales. (“When Daddy was your age, he really thought this one present was yucky, but  he didn’t want to hurt his grandmother’s feelings, so he said, ‘I love you, Nana.’ ”.)

In both of my friends’ suggestions, truth was encouraged. When Karen gave the Potter prints indirectly to the mothers, she knew the they would supply the “why we like it” to the children. With Jamie’s idea, the grandkids learn right and wrong from family fables.

Encouraged to tell white lies, children get comfortable lying. The lies spread to many social situations. We might call our white lies practice for bigger and more important lies.

Dr. Talwar says, “Almost all kids will experiment with lying to avoid punishment. Because of that they lie indiscriminately.” She also has learned that children who grasp the early nuance between lies and truth use this knowledge to their advantage, making them more prone to lie when given the chance.

We grandmothers in our Thursday group admitted that we have done our part to propagate the white lies. We also resolved that in the future we will be more careful to avoid these behaviors before they start.

Some more ideas:

* Hugs and smiles and kisses are great! As soon as the wrapping paper is off say, “Come and give Grandma a big bear hug!” It saves the child from having to comment. We can say, “That jacket will keep my little honey warm on a cold winter’s day.” We have diverted the child from telling a white lie.

*Notes are gracious. We can bring paper and crayons when we visit, and help grandchildren make thank-you cards. We can use this opportunity to teach them what to say, and emphasize the appreciation-without-lies concept. (We can also bring stamps and mail the notes.)

Holidays, anniversaries, graduations, birthdays…there are so many gift-giving moments in life.

And so many opportunities to respond with truth.

The next time I unwrap a green blouse with orange fish swimming across the bodice, I’m going to tell my husband that I really appreciate his shopping (I know he hates it), and say, “I love you for buying a size small!” …though I’m not.

Thanks. Appreciation. Gratitude.  No white lies.  Just pure white truth.

FLORENCE BERGER-DOYLE

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