Christmas concerns over manners

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Q&A with Family Happiness Coach Poppy Abbs

Dear Poppy,

My four year old daughter is very shy with anyone other than me and my husband. She sees her grandparents two or three times a year as we live many hours away from both sets. When we do see them it takes days for her to warm up and it often comes across as her being rude. We are taking a whistlestop tour of the relatives this Christmas and to be honest, I’m dreading it. I just know she won’t say thank you and I’ll be so embarrassed.

Poppy says...

We were all brought up to say thank you. It is, along with saying please, meeting someone’s eye and chewing with your mouth closed, part of the bedrock of social etiquette. It is especially important to give thanks when someone has put thought and effort into choosing you a gift, which is why at Christmas time we hear across the land the fraught voices of parents urging their children to, “Say thank you!”

There are the feelings of two people to consider here: your daughter and the gift-giver.

For your daughter, it might be helpful to remember that she hasn’t been around very long and social constructs are many and complex. Here are some tactics to help her navigate thanking people:

  • Thank her at every opportunity. Modelling is the best way to pass behaviour on to children.
  • Before you arrive at a relative’s house, let her know what is expected of her, especially when different people have different needs, e.g. Aunty Emily is happy with a thumbs up but Grandad likes to hear a thank you, and he is a bit deaf.
  • At the appropriate moment, a quiet word or sign to remind her of what she needs to do or say.
  • If she is still struggling, you can save her dignity and end the awkward moment by thanking them for her, making sure to use a kind tone, not an exasperated one. This has the added benefit of modelling the appropriate verbal language, tone and body language and raises her chance of success next time.

To help the gift-giver to still feel appreciated, it also helps to measure their expectations. Let them know in a passing comment or with an amusing anecdote that your daughter is still unsure of other people but she doesn’t mean to be rude. The main thing is to ensure the gift-giver is thanked so if your daughter is unable then do it kindly yourself, in her hearing. Later, once home, you could talk to your daughter about how else she might thank them, such as drawing a card or making a video to send to them.

She will learn social graces sooner with your help and empathy than with barked orders and withheld gifts. You are her advocate; you can save her embarrassment and yours by meeting the situation head on. Good luck!


Dear Poppy,

My daughter-in-law has emailed us to ask that we limit the number of gifts we buy our grandsons this year to two each. She thinks we spoil them and are making them ungrateful. I am furious. We’ve worked hard all our lives and we want to spend our money on things that will make our grandsons happy. We love watching them open their parcels on Christmas day and this rule will ruin that.

Poppy says...

It is commonly said that it is better to give than to receive and this seems to be truer the older we get. It is clear how much you enjoy giving presents to your grandsons and you feel angry that your daughter-in-law is threatening this tradition.

There are many reasons a family might ask for fewer gifts. Perhaps they are trying to reduce waste or declutter their homes, both very en vogue right now. It could be that they are in financial difficulties and do not want their own somewhat meagre gifts to their children to be overshadowed by yours. They may truly be concerned that their sons are too influenced by material goods and wish to foster a less consumerist outlook.

Whichever of these is the case, it is not a rejection of your love for them or your grandchildren. Although you like to show your love by buying generous gifts, they are telling you it is not how they like to receive it. Find another way of showing your love that respects their family choices. National Trust memberships or annual passes for a local zoo give the gift of experience, as do tickets to a sports match or concert, and you have the choice of attending with them and making memories together. Magazine subscriptions or lessons in their chosen hobby are longer-lasting than this season’s fad toy.

The key to this situation is to communicate with your child and your daughter-in-law. Explain as calmly as possible how you feel and ask how you can come to a solution that is favourable to all. They will not have meant to upset you with this request and your anger stands to ruin Christmas far more than the number of presents under the tree.

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