Photo: Kristin Van de Water

“Are there any new presents under the tree?” chirped my daughter the moment she bounded through the door after school. “Are these all the presents we’re going to get?” she asked, re-inspecting the loot and grumbling, “Why does Zachary get the biggest gifts?”

Fifteen minutes after school pickup—and I already needed a mommy timeout. I can’t stand seeing materialism brainwash my daughter, leaving an ungrateful heart in its wake.

During gifting seasons, my daughter shows an utter lack of gratitude for the bounty before her. Even when she unwraps something on her wish list, she blurts out, “I don’t like Legos…I wish I had the purple one…Did I get any money? Can I pick out anything on the computer?”

Thankfully, my daughter’s fascination with gifts isn’t limited to receiving them. Her favorite activity is wrapping up toys and odds and ends from around the apartment and presenting them to friends and siblings. Last week, my daughter gave one such gift to her classmate and then saw how sad that friend’s little sister was upon not receiving a gift of her own. My daughter was so distraught with the situation she spent several hours that weekend wrapping up trinkets in various boxes and taping them together into the shape of a bird to present it to the little sister.

You can imagine the delight shared by both parties when Monday’s playdate rolled around. These sweet gifting rituals amongst playmates have nothing to do with monetary value. It’s about the surprise, thought, anticipation, unwrapping, and reciprocation.

After witnessing this joyful exchange, I reassessed my resentful perspective on the central role of gifting during a season that’s about so much more. I threw out my previous assumption that my daughter was a victim to materialism and considered the possibility that gifting was simply her way of feeling emotionally connected to others. In other words, gifts are her love language.

Gary Chapman, author of The 5 Love Languages of Children: The Secret to Loving Children Effectively, explains that people feel loved in five primary ways, called love languages:

  1. Acts of Service
  2. Quality Time
  3. Physical Touch
  4. Words of Affirmation
  5. Gifts

While all kids love gifts, some enjoy snuggles or a special family outing just as much as physical presents. That’s the case for three of my four kids. But for my 7-year-old daughter, gifts are her primary love language.

Because receiving gifts ranks lowest on my list of how I feel loved, I’ve traditionally struggled to understand my daughter’s fascination with presents.

I feel loved through acts of service and physical touch. As a result, in my attempt to show motherly love, I default to taking care of my kids’ physical needs and showering them with hugs and kisses. But to a daughter who never snuggles deeper into a hug (if I tried to cuddle her as a baby, she would stretch out her legs to try to stand up), my actions are undoubtedly lost in translation.

“Notice how your child relates to you,” Chapman suggests. “Typically, kids show love in the way they’d like to receive it.”

My daughter is a prolific writer and crafter, creating books, cards, pictures, songs and paper treasures to gift to family and friends. She wrote two stories this afternoon and “published” them just in time to read aloud as bedtime stories—giggling all the way at her own jokes!

What joy! What a gift! It amazes me that I’m only now realizing that I should reciprocate. So, I brainstormed ideas on how to gift my daughter words of affirmation.

  • Tuck a note in her lunchbox: “You tell funny jokes! Here’s one of mine…”
  • Set up toys into a playful scene, labeled, “Good morning! We can’t wait to play with you!” so she sees it when she wakes up.
  • Say, “I love the way you draw! Could you teach me to draw a cute puppy?”
  • Stick a post-it on one of her in-progress stories. “I’m your biggest fan! Your stories are creative and fun to read.”
  • Write a thank-you note. “Thank you for breaking up your little sister’s tantrum with tickles and a story. You’re a great big sister!”

As fun as these ideas sound, this is another tricky area for me because words of affirmation rank second-lowest on my love language list. At first, I assumed that compliments would unhealthily puff up my daughter’s ego rather than teaching humility. I don’t want her to grow up feeling entitled or grow numb to praise. I also don’t want her to base her value on another’s verbal approval.

But then I looked at it through the lens of my own love language: acts of service. Just because I feel emotionally connected to my husband when I wake up to a basket of clean laundry doesn’t mean I’m overly dependent on others taking care of me.

Therefore, I shouldn’t lament my daughter’s fascination with gifts as a problem or dependency to be fixed, but rather as one unique facet of her personality.

Luckily for me, this means the joy of Christmastime giving doesn’t have to stop come January. I have a daughter who delights in thoughtful surprises throughout the year. I cherish those sweet good-morning notes slid under my door and look forward to loving her in ways that speak into her heart.

This doesn’t mean hugs and dinner prep should come to a full stop just because they are my love language, not hers. According to Chapman, “The goal is to give your child heavy doses of his or her primary love language while continuing to include the other four. This teaches the child how to receive and give love in all five languages.”

When my kids grow into adults who love on spouses and children of their own, I pray that they both know and show genuine, self-giving love—even if it sometimes feels like they must speak in a foreign language to make that happen.