Making Gift-Giving Meaningful for Young Children

We all know children enjoy receiving gifts. But have you thought about how important it is to us to give gifts to children we care about?

The old adage that it is better to give than to receive often rings true. As parents and caregivers, we see how much pleasure children receive from giving, and it is important during the holidays to help children feel they can give as well as receive. Self-esteem comes from feeling that you have been thoughtfully given to, but also from feeling you are someone who has the capacity and goodness to bring joy to others.

Giving well to others

How do you help a child “give well”? To answer that, we first need to describe some of the features of what it means for an adult to give well. Giving well involves choosing a gift that is in accordance with the needs and tastes of the person receiving the gift. Giving well involves some sacrifice from the giver, whether it is money, time or mental energy. Giving well also means that the pleasure we bring to a person should be more important than the gratitude they express.

We want a child eventually to achieve these capacities to give well. As always, we bring children along this path in accordance with their developmental capacities. The 2-year-old is just beginning this process. When she scribbles and gives a picture as a gift, she is not thinking about whether Mom has a particular interest in scribbled pictures apart from her pleasure in her daughter’s productions. There has been little sacrifice; the time she spent drawing has been pleasurable. The pleasure she brings is only important in so far as it is expressed back in praise and love. This is the way it should be because this is how gift-giving starts.

Help focus on the recipient

Parents can gently move the child along, by pointing out the choices the child may have made that are in accordance with parents’ or teachers’ preferences. You can say, “Did you choose purple because you knew how much I liked it?” or, “I especially appreciate it because you worked so hard.” Talk about how you enjoy the picture and not just about what a good job the child did.

Possibly at 2, but certainly at 3 and 4, encourage and help gift-giving for other family members and close friends. Help the child choose a gift that is receiver-centered. For example, if a child wants to draw a picture for grandma, you can say, “Let’s think about grandma and what she likes to do and look at. That will help us know what kind of picture she will enjoy.” This is more helpful than saying, “Anything you do, grandma will love,” (however true that might be!).

Involve young children

Take children along while you shop, because even minimal participation will support a sense of involvement. Perhaps they can help choose the sweater for Grandpa. On Hanukkah evening, Christmas morning and/or Kwanzaa, try to spend as much time as possible with the children’s gifts to parents and siblings. Wrapping them and giving them as much importance as the gifts they receive will help emphasize the giving part of the gift experience.

Undoubtedly, you will find many ways to include children in giving — making cards and calling to see how grandmother enjoyed the gift are other possibilities. Remember: When children feel that they are able to give well, they grow in their feeling of being worthwhile. Such a feeling is the best gift anyone can give or receive.

The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood in Cary is a private, nonprofit agency that promotes the healthy emotional well-being of children and their families. To submit a question about children’s emotional development and behavior, send an e-mail to with Ask Lucy Daniels in the subject line.

Categories: Early Education, Health and Development, Preschool Development, Seasonal, Seasonal Fun