By Sandy Hsu | @hopefulsmiles
I happened upon a hidden gem buried deep in the Michaels’ clearance aisle: an adorable paint-your-own dinosaur art kit marked 70% off. It was the perfect little birthday gift for my friend’s dino-loving son who had just turned four, the same age as my daughter. Two years ago, my daughter attended his dinosaur-themed birthday party, and the two of them had a blast playing with a giant tub of plastic dinosaurs together. As I headed toward the checkout line with my fortuitous little find, I had an idea: I wanted my daughter to share in the joy of gift-giving, and this was the perfect opportunity.
My plan was straightforward: We would wrap the present together, and my daughter would hand him the gift during our upcoming playdate. Seemed simple enough. Of course I was aware of the potential pitfalls: my daughter also loved dinosaurs, painting, and presents. And she was a four-year-old. But nothing a little talk about gratitude and generosity wouldn’t smooth over, right?
I was about to find out.
The next day, I approached my daughter with the dinosaur art kit, a gift bag and tissue paper, and optimistically laid out my proposal. “Emme, remember our friends coming over to play this Saturday? Shane just had his birthday. Let’s wrap a present to give to him when we see him.”
“A present? Can I see it?” my bright-eyed daughter eagerly reached over to examine the box. She ran her hand over the colorful packaging displaying a set of paintbrushes, cute dinosaur outlines on little squares of canvas, and enticing neon paints in blues and greens— her favorite colors. She stared with big eyes, mesmerized.
“This is for Shane.” I reminded her hoping to break the spell.
She blinked, “Can we open it?” Uh oh.
“No. This is a present for Shane because it’s his birthday. Remember how presents made you so happy on your birthday? Let’s put Shane’s present in this gift bag. He’ll be so happy.”
“But I want a present!” she looked up at me with tears welling up, “I want it! I want to paint! The blue and green paint are my favorite!”
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
She whined and asked about the art kit over and over (and over) again. I reasoned with her. I reminded her (and myself) of how during her pandemic birthdays, friends near and far mailed gifts and even dropped off balloons and cake outside our front door, waving from the car. These moments had brought me to tears. You are so lucky and so loved. I desperately wanted my daughter to pay it forward, have a content and gracious heart, and exercise the thoughtfulness and generosity I’ve seen from her so many times before. But today she was having none of it.
The persistent sulking and nagging continued on into lunchtime. As we sat side-by-side at the table I asked, “Are mommy and daddy sad when we give you presents?”
“No.” she poked at the chicken on her plate.
“Then why are you so sad about giving a gift to someone else? When mommy and daddy give you presents, we are happy because it makes you happy. You can also be happy for someone else when you give them a present too, right?”
She considered this a moment, “But—” and the whining started again. I threw up my hands. Clearly this was going nowhere.
“That’s enough. I can see this is just making you upset so we are not going to talk about it anymore.” I used my sternest voice and possibly a few threats of consequences and finally we were able to move on. I breathed a silent sigh of equal parts frustration and relief.
Well, it turned out that teaching my preschooler the joy of giving was in fact, a real drag.
I could have kept the present hidden away in the depths of my closet and then clandestinely wrapped it under the cover of night. I could have deftly slipped the gift bag to my friend while the children were preoccupied in their play and whispered, “Oh by the way, this is for Shane, for his birthday. Open later.” Instead, I now had a pouty four-year-old to contend with, and I’ll probably still end up wrapping the present myself.
Why do we do this to ourselves? As parents, as mothers, why do we choose to take the muddy, bumpy, over-the-river-and-through-the-woods route instead of the highway on-ramp? We know some things need to be learned the hard way, but if I’m being honest, when I traverse through the mess, the dark forests, the marshy waters, I often feel lost and question why I ever came down this path.
The best things in life don’t come easy, they say. We do our best to teach and model the importance of patience, kindness, generosity, respect, hard work, and honesty to our children, but often it feels like a muddy journey. Progress is slow, and along the way we are never quite sure if we are in for a sighting of a prized unicorn or dreaded tantrum monster. Important life lessons take us on detours from the familiar, easy, and comfortable— and it doesn’t always seem to pay off.
I wish there was a shortcut. I want to wave a wand and poof, tantrum over. Poof, potty training complete. Poof, she wants to eat her vegetables. Poof, she’s now a grateful, considerate, well-mannered child. But such wizardry doesn’t exist.
Later that evening, after I had put the baby down for the night and my husband had situated our daughter in her bath, he swung by the kitchen where I was washing bottles and casually announced, “Emme left something for you on the bed.” I looked up from the sink.
“And it was completely her idea,” he felt the need to add.
I peeked into the bedroom and there, nestled on top of the bed quilt, was a white tote bag with a earbud case inside neatly tied up with string. I open it to find a small necklace strung with bright pink wooden beads. Hidden treasure.
“I made a necklace for you mommy!” my daughter declared as she danced over to me with wet hair and pajamas, fresh from her bath. “It’s a present for you! I’m giving you a present, and I’m not sad!”
That magic moment.
I wanted to share the joy of giving with my daughter, and here she was presenting me with a handmade gift with genuine exuberance. I wanted her to wrap a present for a friend, and she instead wrapped a gift for me with the best packaging she scavenged from around the house. I was frustrated when I couldn’t coach her out of her big feelings, but she was showing me that she just had the biggest heart.
We took selfies together with me proudly wearing the necklace and my daughter making silly faces. This treasured necklace still sits on my dresser to remind me that somewhere in the midst of this meandering journey, there is magic.
There will be hard days, times when it seems like nothing is working. We can’t force our children to “see the light,” but we continue on, doing our best and what we believe is right even if that means taking a harder path. And somewhere along the bumpy road, there will be those light-bulb moments, precious moments, when things suddenly click and you are assured that you are in fact doing something right. Like hidden treasure, we never know exactly when that moment will come, but until then, we dig a little deeper.
Sandy Hsu | @hopefulsmiles
Sandy is a wife, mother of two, and scientist-turned-writer living in Los Angeles, California. When she’s not reading to her girls, cleaning up mealtime messes, or struggling to keep up with the laundry, Sandy enjoys writing, painting, and planning travel adventures with her family. A lover of good stories and thought-provoking conversations, Sandy strives to find joy and beauty in the midst of the daily grind and hopes to encourage other moms to do the same.