"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
December 5, 2013
Bummer Birthday Gifts
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


I didn’t get anything that I wanted for my birthday this year. Well, my dad did give me a tasty treat I really like, but everything else was a bust. It makes me think my parents and husband don’t know me at all. And yes, I do feel dumb for feeling this way when I’m old enough to be married.

But what can I do? Besides grow up, I mean. That’s obvious.


Well, hold on. What did you do when you received the gifts?

Did you smile warmly and say, “Thank you?” Did you express gratitude to the people who were kind enough to spend their time and treasure on your behalf? Did you reflect on their thoughtfulness — or, at the very least, their compliance with the birthday protocol you expected (i.e. a gift) — even though the actual items they purchased were not what you would have chosen for yourself?

If you did these things, congratulations. You successfully acted like a grown up. You graciously received these gifts and put the feelings of your family members above your own. You behaved in a way that communicated gratitude instead of petulance. You kept your unflattering emotions to yourself, to be explored at a later time in a private place. This kind of self control is a hallmark of maturity.

On the other hand, if you scoffed at the gifts, complained, rolled your eyes, or said any of the following, you behaved badly: “That’s not what I wanted.” “It’s the wrong color.” “Why didn’t you get me the big one?” “I’m not wearing that.” “What am I supposed to do with this?”

These responses are not even childish — they are selfish and rude. They show a total lack of consideration for the feelings of others. If you think you were disappointed about a gift, imagine the disappointment of the giver who knows his gift was a total flop.

Do not fall for the nonsense that a gift-giver wants to know where he went wrong. That it’s important to critique a gift so the giver will do better next time instead of wasting money on something you don’t like. That it’s dishonest to let the gift-giver believe you liked his gift when you actually didn’t. All of these excuses are merely justifications for selfishness.

A tiny number of people will want to know why you find their gifts defective. They may feel they have let you down by not finding the perfect item. Or perhaps they truly do not care if you don’t like their gift. But the vast majority of people will feel embarrassed and offended if you explain the deficiencies of their gifts. They will wonder why you can’t just be grateful, and will not want to give you anything else ever again.

If you responded rudely to your birthday gifts, you should apologize to your husband and parents. And you should resolve to act graciously next time. But if you responded graciously, I think you can feel satisfied that you behaved well.

It is tempting to say that you should simply be less materialistic. That if you cared less about acquiring stuff, you wouldn’t have this problem. That could be true. If you are upset that your presents weren’t extravagant enough, you should stop being greedy. You should learn to appreciate the thought and effort behind what other people give you. And you should feel ashamed for demanding expensive things from other people.

I don’t think you are necessarily greedy. Still, it seems that you are expecting too much, and not appreciating what you have. You still get birthday gifts from your mother and father, for goodness sake. So perhaps what you really need to do is adjust your expectations in two ways.

First, you need to change your expectations for your birthday. Instead of expecting a day when people fete you and give you awesome presents, expect to receive simple good wishes from close friends and family. You are an adult now, and you are hopefully maturing from a person who expects to be celebrated into a person who is grateful for any kind wishes that come her way.

Do not expect your parents to spend much time agonizing over what to get you. In fact, you should not expect them to get you anything at all. Those days are over. Although many parents of adult children do spend considerable time selecting gifts for their grown progeny, I should hope they are motivated by the joy of giving and not by the unreasonable expectations and demands of ungrateful grown-up children.

Second, you need to lower your expectations for other people. You should not expect your mother, your father, or your husband to magically know what you want for your birthday, no matter how much they love you or how long they have known you. They are not mind-readers.

Some spouses have the talent of knowing exactly what the other person needs, wants, or is feeling. But most spouses do not have that talent. In most marriages, as in most relationships, if something is important to you — or bothering you — you need to speak up. And when you want to know what your spouse is thinking or feeling, you need to ask.

You cannot say, “If he really loved me, he wouldn’t have to ask.” That’s ridiculous. Plenty of people who love each other rely on talking instead of guessing. It is unrealistic to believe someone can divine your needs and wants just because he loves you.

So if receiving nice or meaningful gifts is important to you, you need to tell your husband. He is the only person I can think of from whom you can properly request — not demand — a gift. Have a conversation in which you discuss (1) whether gifts are important to each of you, (2) how you feel when you receive a wonderful gift, and (3) what, in your opinion, makes a meaningful gift.

For example, you may feel more love from receiving something small and thoughtful than from receiving something expensive. Or he might feel appreciated when he receives a small luxury that he normally forgoes.

This conversation should not take place the day after he has failed to satisfy you on a gift-giving occasion. And it is not the time for you to present a shopping list of things you want. Ideally, it would take place a day or two after he has delighted you with the perfect little something.

If gifts are not particularly important to your husband, he may be surprised at the weight you give them. He may even disapprove of your attitude about receiving gifts. Be sure to listen to what he has to say.

Your family and his family may have vastly different traditions and practices surrounding gifts. He may have odd notions, like believing that gifts should never be returned, or that no suggestions are allowed.

Then, work out a way the two of you will communicate about gifts so that you are exchanging things you want, while preserving the desired element of surprise, and not wasting money on items nobody wants.

However, remember that discussing your feelings with your husband does not mean you will get your way. No matter how clearly you explain your wishes, your husband may not agree with you. His objections could be financial, moral, aesthetic, practical, or emotional. Do not make the mistake of thinking that he will agree with you if you can only communicate effectively with him. A person can perfectly comprehend another person’s point of view and still disagree with it.

Communication helps people understand each other; it does not necessarily cause them to agree with each other.

I suggest a little routine when a gift-giving occasion is approaching. It might go like this: He says, one morning, “Darling, your birthday is coming up.” Regardless of how much you are anticipating your birthday, you respond, “Oh, is it?” He says, “Yes. I was thinking that you might like a gift. Is there anything you think you might like?” You say, “Well, come to think of it, my running shoes sure are worn. I’d like to go to Run-O-Rama for a new pair.”

The tone of the conversation should be casual, not demanding. Your tone should say, “I’m lucky to have such a thoughtful husband.” It should reflect gratitude, not entitlement. Of course, you should not suggest to your husband anything that is beyond your budget.

You can respond in a similar way to your mother if she asks what you’d like for some occasion. But you should not be the one to bring up the topic or volunteer what you want. You are an adult now, and you don’t get to demand presents from your mom. Instead, you get to be delighted and grateful for her generosity and love.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!

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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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