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Opinion: What to do with the bad gifts

Opinion by Jill Filipovic

(CNN) — As the Christmas season winds down, it’s time for an annual Boxing Day tradition: Feeling disappointed in a gift, then feeling guilty about being disappointed, and then weighing the potential fallout of returning the gift or exchanging it for something you actually want.

Based on data from the National Retail Federation, in 2022, customers sent back about 17% of all merchandise they bought. A lot of post-Christmas emotion could be avoided by sticking to the spirit of Christmas (and gift-giving generally): giving thoughtfully and accepting loving gestures. Some people are selfish, thoughtless gift-givers; others are childish and materialistic gift-grabbers. But often, it’s more complicated.

I’m sure many of us have opened a present and realized it was a last-minute grab at CVS or wondered, is this really for… me? If you’re not an entitled monster, you say thank you and you appreciate being given anything at all. But it can be confusing or hurtful to give thoughtfully to others only to receive thoughtless or generic gifts in return.

Anecdotally, this does seem to be a gendered issue. By now, it’s a trope that moms get crap for Christmas. Their stockings are empty while everyone else’s are teeming.

The typical story is that a woman, often a mother, spends the weeks before Christmas buying gifts she knows each member of her family will love, hanging stockings and other decorations, maybe hiding an Elf on the Shelf around the house to thrill her little kids, baking cookies for Santa, wrapping gifts, coordinating travel and making sure the needed ingredients are on hand for an epic Christmas dinner with all the fixings (and all dietary requirements catered to).

Then, come Christmas morning, while everyone else is in a frenzy of unwrapping and receiving, she gets yet another robe or a drug-store candle – or, even worse, a “gift” that actually is for carrying out a chore or that benefits the whole household, like a vacuum cleaner or a home appliance.

You hear many variations on this theme: The woman who was very specific about what she wanted, only to get something similar but not-quite. The anxious girlfriend hoping for a proposal only to be disappointed. The wife who gets a coupon or an IOU instead of an actual present.

Of course, men experience gift disappointment, too. Not all moms are neglected and put-upon. And the most vocally disappointed are often children, who may petulantly reject unwanted presents (socks, really?) or throw fits when they don’t get what they had wanted.

Managing gift disappointment is different for children and adults. Children, who are still learning how to regulate their emotions and behave politely, probably have to be told more than a few times over the course of their lives to say thank you even if they didn’t receive exactly what they wanted, and no doubt have to be prodded to send thank-you cards to the gift-givers.

Disappointment doesn’t make them ungrateful brats; it makes them human. It’s the job of the adults raising them to both require decent behavior and model gratitude themselves. And those adults, hopefully, have learned the basics of expressing thanks – but may still feel let down, sometimes justifiably.

Managing that disappointment — figuring out how much weight to give it, deciding what to do in response — can also be a teachable moment for grownups and kids alike.

There are a couple of ways to change the gift mentality. The first is recalibrating any family or household’s relationship to Christmas. Material possessions give us a short-term happiness bump, but they aren’t the things that keep us happy long-term. Experiences are much better for that, whether the experience is a trip, a concert or a gathering of loved ones for a meal.

Making the gathering the focus, not the gifts, can help to see presents under the tree for what they are: Tokens of affection, but not love itself. Creating a group norm of using limited resources for shared connective experiences – getting to the Christmas host’s home, bringing something special to eat, spending time together, being present – helps to reinforce the idea that the gifts are nice but are not the centerpiece to the holiday. The centerpiece of the holiday is time, love and connection.

But that, of course, requires that everyone participate in the experience – not that mom or all the women do the coordinating, meal-planning, shopping, table-setting, cooking and cleaning up while all the men eat, drink and relax.

Another way to manage gift disappointment is by being specific. Some families share Christmas lists; others simply tell their loved ones what they want. No, it’s not as romantic as someone reading your mind to divine exactly what you desire. But it does encourage direct communication.

It can be a moment for those who have plenty to really reflect and ask: Do I actually need anything? And it can be a moment for those who do have needs to express them. It’s also great for the uncreative gift-givers among us. Being direct doesn’t ruin the magic of Christmas; it preserves the sanity of everyone involved.

There’s also no shame in returning or exchanging a gift for something you actually want. This, of course, can be fraught; if the giver expects to see the gift when they visit your home, for example, you’ll need to consider whether it’s worth potentially hurting their feelings.

Returning or exchange is probably best suited for gifts from people who won’t care, or for when you’re gifted a big-ticket item that you are never going to use but really could use the money for something necessary.

One hint: If the giver has given you the gift receipt, they’re probably ok with a return or exchange. If you have to ask for the receipt, you should consider who you’re asking and what the fallout might be. Sometimes, it’s better to just keep or donate the unflattering top or useless gadget.

Finally, for those who are often disappointed by loved ones who don’t listen to your preferences or don’t think of you until the last minute, gift disappointment can usher in some clarity.

Is this a dynamic specific to Christmas, while otherwise your partner, children, parent or friend is generally thoughtful and doing their part to sustain the relationship? Or is the poor gifting in line with other instances of ignoring your requests, not listening when you talk, neglecting your desires or simply not doing nearly as much within the relationship or household?

Some people are simply bad at gifting. If they show love, affirmation and commitment in other ways, and if they are otherwise engaged and equitable in their behavior toward you, the answer may be to simply accept that not everyone can be great at everything, and gift yourself something nice every year. But if the Grinch-like gifting is part of a larger pattern, then maybe your present this year is insight into a much deeper problem in that relationship — and your New Year’s resolution should be to have some tough conversations about how to fix it.

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