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Holiday Sibling Rivalry

Handle kids' gift jealousy in a fair way

You shop ’til you drop for holiday gifts. Then, as the flurry of wrapping and ribbons settles on the living room floor, you hear a shrill, small voice whine, “It’s not fair! 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 (or love) they receive.

MK Readers on Gift Rivalry

Two savvy MK readers weigh in on how they keep their kids on an even, happy keel when unwrapping
holiday presents.

"This year, we are doing ‘Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.’ So four gifts plus stocking stuffers. Other
years, I tried to spend a similar amount and always
gave out the same number of presents." —Tara Knapp Koup

"You get what you get and you don't get upset. We explain to our kids how fortunate they really are.
Anyone who complains loses their gifts for a few days . . . and no one complains." —Larisa Parker

Keeping score of gifts

Kids’ understanding of equity-related concepts like count and cost develop throughout childhood. A toddler understands a big piece of cake is better than a small piece. A Kindergartener knows seven gifts are more than five. “Young kids will be happiest with the same number of gifts, because they’re usually unaware of price,” says New Jersey-based clinical psychologist Tamara Shulman, PhD. Older kids are more cost-aware and may choose one extravagant item over many cheaper ones.

“Sibling rivalry is developmentally appropriate into middle adolescence,” says family psychologist Stephanie Mihalas, PhD. Therefore, gift-related gripes are seldom about the material objects themselves; they express kids’ fears that parents favor one sibling over another.

Rivalry isn’t just a developmental issue. Society equates fairness with sameness. If kids learn that everyone gets a trophy, they may feel slighted when everyone isn’t treated the same.

Family fair play

Some family situations may exacerbate fairness concerns. For instance, “Children of divorced parents may pit parents against one another at holiday time,” says Mihalas. Blended-family dynamics are also tricky. If the non-biological child feels she received fewer or different kinds of gifts — for instance, socks and books instead of an iPod and Uggs — she may resent her more-fortunate stepsiblings. Feeling left out can cause kids to act out for attention or to retaliate.

Sometimes parents do discriminate, even unconsciously, buying “better” gifts for a child whose interests match their own versus practical presents for one who needs more pedestrian items like a bike helmet. Ask each child for a wish list and use it. Taking kids’ preferences into account makes them feel special.

Deal with gift 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 sibling a personalized version of the very same item, children can feel slighted. If kids raise concerns, don’t get caught up in a lengthy discussion of who got more. And resist the urge to smooth over their sorrow or to diminish discontent with make-up gifts.

“Kids need to know how to deal with disappointment,” says family therapist and father of six David Simonsen, LFMT. “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,” says Shulman. Select thoughtful gifts based on kids’ unique interests and wishes, and tell them you love them more than gifts could ever express.

Freelance writer Heidi Smith Luedtke can be found online here.

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