Date: December 1, 2011
You carefully shop for holiday gifts. Then, as the flurry of wrapping and ribbons settles on the living room floor, you hear a shrill, small voice whine, "Mom, she got seven presents and I only got five."
Material gifts are no substitute for parental affection. Still, kids make a connection between what parents give and how parents feel. If we teach kids that gift-giving is an expression of caring, it makes sense they'd take note of just how much loot they receive.
How much did I get?
Kids' understanding of equity-related concepts like count, cost and kind develop throughout childhood. Young kids think in concrete, egocentric terms. A toddler understands a big piece of cake is better than a small piece. A kindergartner knows seven gifts is more than five.
"Young children will be happiest with the same number of gifts, because they're usually unaware of price," says Tamara Shulman, a clinical psychologist who practices in New York City and Clifton, N.J. Older kids are more cost-aware and may choose one expensive item they really want over many less-costly ones.
Gift-related gripes are seldom about the material objects themselves, experts say; they're a reflection of the meaning kids attach to those objects. Concerns about fairness express kids' fears that parents favor one sibling more than another.
"Sibling rivalry is developmentally appropriate throughout childhood and into middle adolescence," says Stephanie Mihalas, a psychologist who works with children and families in Los Angeles, Calif. Kids complain when mom takes one child out for ice cream while the other takes her piano lesson. They're always aware of how much attention they receive.
Rivalry isn't just a developmental issue. Our society creates and reinforces the expectation that everything needs to be fair, says marriage and family therapist David Simonsen, a father of six. Because our culture equates fairness with sameness, kids today learn that everyone gets a trophy, regardless of performance. When everyone isn't treated the same, kids may feel slighted.
How much did she get?
"Kids are hypersensitive at holiday time because they're comparing gift lists with peers at school and with siblings at home," Mihalas says.
Some family situations may exacerbate fairness concerns. For instance, "children of divorced parents may pit parents against one another at holiday time," Mihalas says. A child may tell mom, "Did you know dad is going to get me a big train?" and tell dad, "Did you know mom is getting me a bike?"
Blended family dynamics are also tricky. If non-biological children feel they received less or different kinds of gifts — socks and books instead of an iPod and Uggs, for example — they may resent their stepsiblings. Feeling left out may cause kids to act out for attention or to retaliate.
Sometimes parents do discriminate, even unconsciously. "It is important that parents honestly self-evaluate to see if they are showing preferential treatment for one child over the other," says Leslie Petruk, a child and family therapist in Charlotte. Parents may buy 'better' gifts for a child whose interests match their own, or buy practical presents for one who needs items like a backpack and bike helmet. Ask each child for a wish list and use it as a shopping guide. Taking kids' preferences into account makes them feel special.
How to deal with the drama
It's impossible to win the fairness game. Even if you give each child six gifts, spend precisely the same amount, or buy each child a personalized version of the very same item, "children will always be able to find some way in which their sibling was given more or treated differently or 'better' in their view," Petruk says.
If kids raise concerns, don't get caught up in a lengthy discussion of who got more; you'll only fuel frustrations. Take a detached, inquisitive approach. Ask, "How does your gift make you feel?" or "What were you hoping to get?" Kids' answers can give parents great insight into feelings about competition and caring.
Hearing kids out doesn't mean you agree with them. Your goal is to ensure your child feels respected. Reflect her concerns back so she knows you get it, Petruk says. Say, "It sounds like you feel like your sister got more gifts then you did, and because of that, you feel like Mom and Dad love her more than we love you." Offer a hug and spend some time one-on-one. Support your child while she wrestles with her feelings.
Resist the urge to smooth over kids' sorrows or to diminish discontent with makeup gifts. "Kids need to know how to deal with disappointment," Simonsen says. "Life isn't fair." When you're tempted to give kids more stuff to stop their complaints, ask yourself, "What will this look like when they're teenagers?" A pillow pet may placate a 4-year-old, but teens want computers and cars.
Don't let equity issues put a damper on your holiday spirit. "This is a perfect opportunity to have a discussion about your family values regarding material things and your love for your children," Shulman says. Select thoughtful gifts based on kids' unique interests and wishes, and tell them you love them more than gifts could ever express.
Heidi Smith Luedtke is a personality psychologist, freelance writer and mom of two who wants both her children to feel like her favorite.