Birthday Gift Etiquette, A fun look at early lessons in manners

by Susan Kawa

It's high time I teach my children a thing or two about the fine art of receiving gifts. We think it's cute when they're turning two, and they rip through the pile of wrapped presents like the Tazmanian Devil. Soon thereafter, though, that kind of behavior loses its charm. And by age 30, it's downright detestable.

But how does one explain to an inherently egocentric and generally oblivious creature this delicate art of gratitude? Kids are naturally greedy. It's a survival instinct: get as much as you can - food, attention, toys that require batteries,... My kids are 3 and 5. They're generally bright creatures, but the whole concept of empathy escapes them. They're not yet capable of "putting themselves in another's place" to objectively evaluate their own behavior. I hear this ability kicks in around middle-age, just in time to be cast aside as the prerogative of the successful or eccentric.

So I was pretty much relegated to establishing a set of rules. I waited patiently for a lucid moment (this is very time-of-day dependent), and came up with a very few specific but comprehensive points. This way I can keep track of them and not come across as a complete moron who can't even remember the rules that I set. I wouldn't, after all, want then to suspect that I'm just "making all this up" as I go along.

So, here we go. The rules in MY house are:

1. You HAVE to act surprised to get each and every present, even if it's your birthday, and you KNOW it's coming, or you've been staring at it, and shaking it, and weighing it, and trying to steam open the tape for 2 weeks.

2. You MAY NOT open a gift until given permission by the giver, or Mom or Dad. Not even a little, just to peek. And not so your SISTER can peek, and tell you what it is.

3. You HAVE to say you like it, even if you hate it, or have another one, or it's broccoli. This is the only time the "lying" rule is suspended.

4. Don't forget to say "Thank you". That GLARE I'm giving you - that's the "SAY IT!!!" Look.

5. The PENALTY for ignoring any of the above rules is NEVER EVER EVER receiving another birthday gift from that person again.

Okay, rules three and four are somewhat redundant, but I figure if they remember one of them, we're covered. I was tempted to add the "Don't pick your nose while opening" rule, but I'm banking on them growing out of that one pretty soon here.

So, now I've written up the rules in multi-colored markers, and hung them up on the refrigerator. They don't read too well, but they respect the authority of the fridge. It's where all the BEST stuff goes (both IN and ON.) We recite the rules together, sometimes singing them to "Yankee Doodle", or the Sesame Street theme song, or whatever (carrying a tune isn't one of my strengths). We practice gift GIVING, wrapping up treasured items, and presenting them to our giant stuffed bear - and subsequently noting his TERRIBLE manners at not properly admiring it and thanking us. I remind, and quiz, and hope beyond hope that some day, they'll completely shock me by performing these rituals in public.

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