How to avoid gift envy of rivaling children

By: Tonya Mead, PhD, MBA, M.Ed, CHFI, CFE, PI

Ok admit it. If you were raised in a family with multiple siblings, there have been times when you envied the gifts received by your brother or sister, right? For birthday, graduation or Christmas; one teen gets the Camel hair sports jacket; the other; a wool, polyester blend. Or one young adult, for a wedding gift, he receives a conservative, stately Toyota Camry. That same year, another in the same family, drives home a sexy, though slightly used BMW.

Gift-selection for our kids, it is tricky. As parents, we never know, ‘What is the right thing to buy?’ We wonder, ‘Will our gestures of love be well received by our kids, are our underlying thoughts appreciated? ‘ Or, will our kids feign satisfaction and in turn, relegate those gifts to the bottom of the closet, or stuff in a box, to lie in wait for the spring arrival of the Salvation Army truck? If we are lucky, yes. If we aren’t; the simple act of gift-giving could have lasting detrimental consequences.

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But, getting back to the point
This article is, in part, about envy. Envy occurs when an individual lacks what another has and either desires [the gift] or wishes that the other did not have it (Salovey, 1991). To take it one step further, how are our gifts judged by the recipients? If gifts are given to our children, without regard to equitable price and market value ranges, how do we discuss our decisions to our kids? Or, should we try? Do we explain our rationale for gifting the conservative, virtually repair-free Camry to the impulsive, hard driving teen, bent upon self-destruction before the age of twenty? And reason that the BMW was gifted to the shy, overly cautious one in an attempt to break him/her out of her shell?

These conversations we need to have. And it is never too soon or too late. Why? If we don’t, our children may begin to question their place in their own world, ours and the cosmos in general. Particularly during the ages of 12-18, children are experiencing the developmental stage whereby they have a heightened sensitivity to others’ evaluation of them (Bretherton, 1986). It is the critical period, too when our kids begin to develop a ‘justice’ orientation. They will be quicker to point out inconsistencies between adults’ words, their actions and how punishment and rewards were exacted differently, in similar situations, at varying times with different kids (siblings).

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So the next time you rush to the check-out counter smiling to yourself that you’ve really got a good deal, think again before you buy. Place yourself in the shoes of your son or daughter; visualize exactly what you’ll say to them when they open the present. If you can’t explain your rationale for gifting that item in seven words or less, it isn’t such a good deal after-all.

Literary Resources
Bretherton, I. & Fritz, J. ‘Learning to Talk about Emotions: A Functionalist Perspective, Child Development 57, (1986): 529-48.
Salovey, P. The Psychology of Jealousy and Envy (1991), Guilford Press, New York New York, 293 pp.