Game can teach kids gift manners

I cringe a little when I think about Christmas 2004. That was the time my beautiful, well-behaved children — my daughter, Jordan, then age 4, and son, Blake, then 3 — suddenly turned into greedy little monsters.

My husband, Michael, and I had hoped that we'd have the best holiday ever. After all, both our kids were finally old enough to get what Christmas was all about. But things didn't turn out at all as we'd expected. What our children got instead was a bad case of the "gimmes."

The first signs cropped up at a Christmas party for our extended family. The presents were piled high, and Jordan and Blake went at them with alarming gusto. Gifts that had been carefully selected by generous grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were quickly torn open, then tossed aside as the kids scoped out the next box labeled with their names. Abandoned clothing, toys, games and books were scattered here and there. I hurried after my little ones, urging them to say "thank you," picking up the presents, and assuring our relatives that their thoughtful gifts would be welcome additions to the children's wardrobes and toy boxes.

I wasn't happy with this display, but I chalked it up to the excitement of the big party. I hoped that our smaller Christmas morning celebration would see more civilized behavior.

But instead, it was more of the same. Jordan and Blake dived at the brightly wrapped boxes under the tree, barely glancing at each package's contents before ripping into the next one.

Seriously dismayed by my kids' antics, I vowed to take action, especially with Jordan's early-February birthday looming. Before the next celebration, the pair would learn the art of graciously receiving a gift.

After mulling it over, I came up with a simple method for practicing gratitude, one that all of us could do together. I explained it to Jordan and Blake, who immediately loved the idea, dubbing it the Present Game.

The rules were simple. Each player started with an empty gift bag. He or she was assigned to "shop" for another player, then headed off to search the house for that one perfect item. It could be anything that fit in the bag — and the gift was to be just for fun, not for keeps.

When the shopping was complete, we gathered to exchange presents one at a time. Each recipient had to say "thank you" as soon as he or she was handed a gift bag. If thanks weren't immediately forthcoming, the giver would issue a quick but gentle reminder.

But simply saying "thank you" wasn't sufficient. The recipient also was required to pay the giver a sincere compliment about whatever surprise he or she extracted from the bag. This is when the game got interesting, and Jordan and Blake really learned a thing or two.

Sometimes it's very easy to be grateful. Upon receiving a favorite stuffed animal, Blake told Jordan, "Thank you for the bear. It will be cuddly to sleep with tonight." But in other cases, they realized, coming up with an appropriate compliment could be a challenge. What do you say when someone presents you with a dog biscuit or a spoon?

The kids soon became adept at looking on the bright side. Pulling her toothbrush from a gift bag, Jordan commented that it's important to brush your teeth, and she noted that a favorite cartoon character was printed on it. Faced with a single sock, Blake said, "It will come in handy the next time Mom loses one of my socks in the laundry."

They clearly relished the challenge of finding something positive to say about each present, pointing out its pretty color or convenient size ("It's small enough to fit in my pocket!").

After all the bags were exchanged, we repeated the process, putting away the previous gifts as we searched for new ones. The game proved to be a rousing success. The kids often requested it at playtime, and we even kept a few empty gift bags in the toy box so that they could play it on their own. I was very pleased to see how the game was teaching Jordan and Blake about the importance of expressing appreciation.

Better yet, the game taught my kids another lesson, one I hadn't anticipated: that giving is even more fun than receiving. They loved roaming the house in a quest for the ideal present. Sometimes they would choose favorite objects that were surefire hits. Other times they grabbed practical items. Often, they went for the laugh (giving underwear was considered particularly hilarious).

Over time, Jordan and Blake needed "thank you" reminders much less often. In fact, having played the Present Game so much, they are now old hands at expressing gratitude in a thoughtful way. And me, I'm grateful that they've put this skill to good use at celebrations all year long.