Should I be worried about my child receiving gifts?

Nuance in gift-giving is an essential skill to learn, but gifts can also be a warning sign of child manipulation

Most of the time children think about giving and receiving gifts as “presents” around birthdays or the holiday season. But gifts and presents are complex.

Children can struggle to differentiate meaningful gifts—like a gift card from well-meaning grandparents that aren’t sure what to buy a twelve-year-old—from random gifts and material possessions that serve as a reward for good behavior or good grades.

Presents vs. gifts

Children often do not distinguish between “presents” and “gifts”. If you asked an eight-year-old the difference between a “gift” and a “present” they might struggle to suggest presents come wrapped with a bow on a birthday or Christmas.

Furthering the confusion, adults may use the terms interchangeably. You should talk to your kids about the difference. You can tell them…

A present…

  • Is something given to bring people joy and happiness
  • Is usually around special occasions like holidays. 
  • Might be from a friend or family and can be just about anything including toys and money. 
  • Is often given even when someone else doesn’t offer a present first, but usually there is a reciprocal exchange of presents.
  • Is an example present might be a new Xbox or Switch from mom and dad, or a gift card from a great aunt.

A gift…

  • Can also be from friends or family but often come as a sign of respect, reward, sympathy, or to remind people about a special memory 
  • Has no expectation it will be repaid or reciprocated. 
  • Might be a hand-sewn blanket, for instance, that can be a gift from someone after the loss of a mom or dad. 
  • Is, as another example, when a child may offer to break open their piggy bank to gift another child money to buy a necessity, like a coat or food vs. a game or toy.

Talk to kids about gift-giving and how to receive gifts

It can be challenging for kids to fully understand the complex emotions and value of gifts and presents. It can be hard for adults to understand, too, so don’t expect them to understand it immediately.

But you already teach your kids good gift-giving etiquette by reminding them to say “thank you” after receiving gifts and be gracious if they’re receiving something they might not like or want. 

You should also go further and explain how and why it’s important to give gifts to others. For instance, if your child’s close friend suffers a house fire, death, or other significant loss, they may be thankful for necessities like coats or replacement books.

But there are times when a gift may border on inappropriate. Older kids may become stressed about finding “the perfect gift” or gift ideas for someone they develop a crush or feelings for. 

For instance, a child may present a painted portrait as a gift to a teacher at the end of the school year, but gifting chocolates or clothing is likely inappropriate. 

Parents and caregivers must know about these moments and offer advice that helps them navigate their emotions with an understanding of the gift’s value, intended use, and purpose.

When to be concerned about a child receiving gifts

Man kissing forehead of young girl receiving a wrapped gift
Talk to your kids about the difference between gifts and presents and to always tell you when someone gives them something.

Should I be worried about my child receiving gifts? Possibly.

Child abuse prevention programs have long warned parents about the signs of “grooming”. As evidence mounts and our understanding of child predators and their tactics evolve, child abuse experts now call “grooming” “manipulation“.

Gift-giving has always been part of the grooming process because it manipulates children into thinking someone is safer than they really are. It’s not uncommon for child predators to give children Christmas and birthday presents, then more random gifts through other times of the year as a way to build a bond and emotional attachment.

Signs your child is being manipulated through gifts:

  • They receive too many gifts from one person or group
  • They receive seemingly unexpected gifts for no known reason
  • They receive new things or money that seem inappropriate in value or age range
  • The effort or timing to send the gifts seems wrong or suspicious, such as always after school on a night they stay late or via at-home delivery with return labels that seem fake or far away

Talk to your kids about the gifts and get involved. But remember they almost certainly do not understand what is happening to them. Ask questions like:

  • “What’s this for?”
  • “How did you get this?”
  • “Does anyone else at school [or your friend group/class/team, etc.] receive gifts like this, too?”
  • “What did they tell you when they gave this to you?”
  • “What did you say when you received this?”
  • If you’re unsure who it came from, you can also ask, “How do you know the person who gave this to you?”

The risks are usually from someone your child already knows

Remember 80%+ sexual exploitation and child sexual assault cases that come into a child advocacy center or to law enforcement get traced to someone the child knows. It’s rarely a stranger, but it can happen if children connect with people online through games or chat apps.

In one hypothetical scenario, a mom might notice her daughter returns from gymnastics practice with an increasing array of gifts her friends do not seem to have. At first, it might be a milkshake from a much older student, then a few weeks later she says she’s not hungry because “he bought me dinner”. Later still tight-fitting clothing or inappropriate items like swimsuits show up in the laundry.

In another example, an eight-year-old boy spends time with a family member every other weeknight while the parents are working late. One weekend, he asks to go to a store or to buy an expensive item like a Playstation or Xbox. “That’s an expensive item. Maybe for Christmas,” a parent replies. 

“What if I pay for it myself?” the child asks. In this case, young children are often told gifts are part of a game and are “a secret” not to tell anyone else. As a parent, you assume at face value they don’t understand the relatively high costs of an Xbox. Still, the child may be trying to hide that they have several hundred dollars available to them gifted to them by their babysitter.

In all of these instances, it’s important parents teach kids:

  • The difference between a gift and a present.
  • When a gift might be inappropriate and why they should always tell you if they receive some things, like money, that come from people, especially people outside the family.
  • The difference between a dollar or two from a school-age friend to buy a snack vs. a meal or several hundred dollars from an adult.
  • That your child can always come to you and trust you.

Worried a child is being groomed and manipulated by gifts?

In Indiana, if you suspect a child is being manipulated by gifts or money, call the Indiana Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-800-5556 or 911. An operator can ask the right questions to help you understand any risks.

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