What happened when your kids opened their gift last Christmas?
Chances are, every time they saw a new toy, they wanted to rip open the box and begin playing with it immediately. Maybe you got them to say thank you to the relative before they opened the gift. But at best it was that half-hearted, sing-songy, “Thank you Uncle Thomas,” and they were looking at the wrong uncle when they said it.
After tearing open box after box, it became impossible to remember which relative gave what, which meant your hopes of writing thank you cards that year had been defeated yet again.
As you looked at your child’s eyes, you didn’t see Hallmark Channel happiness, you saw impatience and even a hint of greed. Piling the mountain of toys in the trunk of the car, you worried that your child was falling into that ugly tar-pit of entitlement and you wondered how you would ever raise a grateful child.
As the angel said to Mary, “Fear not!”
There is something you can do to curb the Christmas craziness. I call it The Gratitude Plan. The Gratitude Plan consists of three rules for your kids:
RULE #1: On Christmas Day, unwrap every present, & only choose two toys to play with.
If your children ask why, tell them the truth: “Last year, when everyone took every gift out of its box, things went wrong. The cards were all mixed up and we couldn’t remember who gave who what. Don’t you remember how you lost two pieces of that Lego set before we even got home? Didn’t your cousin accidentally take home one of the dolls that was supposed to be for you? And didn’t your uncle accidentally step on that action figure? When everyone opens everything on Christmas day, it is simply too chaotic.”
Tell your children that this year each child will choose their top two favorite toys to take out of the box. That means it would be a good idea to wait until they’ve unwrapped everything so they can decide which two they really like the most.
This first Gratitude Plan rule will definitely calm the crazies on Christmas day, but what happens when they get home?
RULE #2: You can only open a gift after you have written a “thank you” card.
Since each child has already opened two gifts, they have two thank you cards to write or record immediately. When they ask to open a third gift, you simply respond, “Sure, once you’ve told me who it’s from, or written a thank you card to Grammie.”
If your child is young and can only write a few words, you can buy fill-in-the-blank cards where the child only needs to write the name of the person and a description of the gift. Just have them sit down later and finish every card as soon as possible (preferably before New Years).
If they are too young to write at all, you can write it for them, but they must choose the words and at least draw a little picture. Another option is to take a video of them holding the gift saying thank you to the person. Regardless of how you choose to do it, saying thank you should take effort.
As they are creating each thank you, show them a picture of the person who sent the gift, and remind them of experiences they’ve had with that person. That way, when your child inevitably complains about the cards or asks, “Do I have to?” you have the opportunity to remind your child that this toy did not magically appear.
“Papa is a real person who knows you, loves you, thought about what you might like, chose this gift, paid for it, and sent it to you. If you don’t say thank you, how do you think that will make him feel?” If the gift was shipped, remind your child that without a thank you note, he will have no idea whether you’ve even received it.
Here is the biggest key to Rule #2: Mommy and Daddy follow the rule too! This is not some random rule that Mommy made up. This is how life works through adulthood.
Write them together as a family so that your children see you expressing gratitude as well.
The last rule is optional, but something to consider …
RULE #3: For each new toy kept, an old toy of the same size must be deleted.
If your parents or in-laws are anything like mine, they absolutely love showering their grandbabies with gifts! Even though you’ve spoken to them before, they still give your children way too much.
If you’ve been trying to battle entitlement, if you’ve been trying to teach contentment, and you’ve already downsized the toys twice this year, the idea of driving home from Grandma’s house with a trunkful of new toys might make your skin crawl.
If you worry that the tidal wave of Christmas toys might destroy all of your progress, Rule #3 will help:
All clothes can be kept, all books and DVD’s can be kept, but if it is a toy to be stored in the already over-crowded play area, then we need to make room.
If your daughter wants to keep her new doll, she has to say goodbye to an old toy of the same size to make room. If she doesn’t like the new doll enough, that’s okay. She still writes a thank-you card, and the doll can be returned or donated. (Good thing it’s still in the box!)
Although this might seem extreme, it is extremely helpful!
The Growth in Gratitude
Each child is now looking at their belongings and their gifts in a new light. On Christmas day, they get to enjoy the childlike enthusiasm of “yay!” “mine!” “I love it!” But when they get home, they learn to be more thoughtful.
They will learn to ask themselves, “How much do I really intend to play with this? Is this really worth keeping? Which toy is more important to me?”
By following this rule, even if each child chooses to keep every new gift, that incoming wave is balanced by an outgoing donation box of about the same size, and so the overall amount of toys in your home is under control.
If you have never done anything like this before, you will need to be thoughtful about how you introduce it. Don’t wait until Christmas day when they’re excited for presents (not to mention hyped up on sugar) to spring it on your kids.
Explain the new rules far in advance, and make sure both parents are in agreement. Give your kids a chance to whine about it, to ask questions, and to come to an understanding. You might even buy the thank you notes ahead of time so they know that you are serious. (In fact, you can download our printable “Thank You” cards here!)
It might not be easy to follow The Gratitude Plan the first time you try it, but it is worth the effort to grow sincere thankfulness within our children.
To learn more about other ways to utilize toys to teach important life lessons, and if you are ready to finally be in control of the play areas in your home, check out the Home On Purpose Toys Lesson Series!