The value of a “bad” gift

By Mohisha Vasa, M.D.

Who hasn’t received that gift…the vacuum cleaner, ugly sweater, or pack of batteries? None of us has escaped the experience of receiving a gift that is unwanted. We all know the disappointment, the let down, sometimes even anger towards the gift-giver!

As the holidays approach, well meaning friends and family members may similarly give our children gifts that they just don’t like. Our kids may want a stuffed animal, but instead receive…a pair of socks. Or they might have been hoping for that cool new remote control car, but instead receive…a pack of pencils. How do we help our children accept unwanted gifts with grace instead of a grimace?

1. Set a good example: Model accepting gifts and cards with appreciation for your children. For instance, when your kids bring home handmade holiday gifts from school, comment on the thoughtfulness and the intention behind the gift. “I love how you remembered my favorite colors when making this card!” or, “I love how much time you spent creating this ornament!” Focusing on the sentiment, rather than the gift itself, demonstrates the meaning behind exchanging gifts.

2. Practice gratitude: Share gratitude for the little things with your children. Demonstrate that it feels good to be thankful for things like a hot shower on a cold evening, or a hug from a close friend. We can be thankful for many of the tiny, inexpensive, ordinary moments in life, and our gratitude tranforms them into extraordinary experiences. This teaches children that we can find gratitude everywhere, not just in expensive toys or grand trips to Disneyland.

3. Help your children find their words: Children are often completely honest with their impressions, even at the expense of another person’s feelings. For example, especially at a young age, they might comment on an individual’s unusual appearance, or how they don’t like the food at grandma’s house. A simple phrase such as, “Are your words kind, true, AND necessary?” can be easy to remember for kids. As parents, we can also help children practice in advance of knowing they might receive gifts that they didn’t want, don’t like or already have. Ask them first for what they would say in such a situation, and give them the opportunity to problem solve first. Then, as parents, we can step in and make suggestions accordingly: “That sounds great. Perhaps you may want to also remember to say ‘thank you,’ even if you didn’t necessarily like the gift.”

4. Re-affirm that they can always tell you their true feelings: We want to teach children to be gracious in accepting gifts from others, and encourage gratitude and kind manners. However, we also want to let them know that they can always come to their parents, or another trusted adult, with their true thoughts and feelings when the time is right. This reminds them that we always want to understand their inner world and experiences, without them having to filter out something as “unacceptable.” We can say to them, for example, “When we are at Aunt Mary’s house, let’s try to be polite, even if you don’t particularly want what you got. Once we come home, I would love to hear everything that you felt about your gifts.” The bigger picture message here is that, as parents, they can come to us with anything, and we will always do our best to listen and guide them.

5. Encourage community service: Although gift giving is an important part of holidays, it is not the most important part. Holidays are about giving to others, and being thankful for what we are blessed with. Community service allows us to share that generosity of spirit in the ways that feel most important to us. Allow your kids to participate in community service activities around the holidays that feel age appropriate. They might enjoy volunteering at a food bank or a soup kitchen, or perhaps spending time with animals at a local shelter. Volunteering takes the focus off of gifts, and helps children understand that it can feel even better to give, than to receive. Volunteering can also help children appreciate the value of all that we have, rather than wanting more.

Gift giving and receiving can be an enjoyable part of the holidays. Helping your children to understand the meaning behind gifts, and accept all gifts with appreciation, can minimize potentially stressful or embarrassing situations. A little perspective and practice can go a long way in helping kids accept that new pair of socks with grace!


Monisha Vasa, M.D. is a board certified General and Addiction Psychiatrist in private practice in Orange County, CA. Dr. Vasa is the author of the non-fiction children’s books, My Dearest One and Saying Thank You. She is also a marathon runner and a student of yoga and meditation. Learn more about Dr. Vasa at and read her blog on The Huffington Post.

By Mohisha Vasa, M.D.