He recalls stealthily walking around the house looking in every hiding place he could think of. Then, opening up one particular cupboard, he saw an open plastic bag with something inside. One peek at the unwrapped package with a picture of the toy on the front, and he knew he’d found one! But in his long and not-very-well-thought-out search, he hadn’t given any consideration to how he would feel after finding his presents. He just knew he wanted to know what they were. And the long wait till Christmas was excruciating.
He remembers being surprised at his own reaction. “It was an instantaneous moment of excitement and accomplishment and satisfaction, followed by several hours of remorse. All of a sudden, my discovery that should have made me so happy came with all this complexity.” Richard described the cascade of feelings that followed. “Now I know what I’m going to get. So the surprise is all ruined. The anticipation is gone. But I can’t actually hold it in my hands and play with it either. That’s even more frustrating than not knowing!
“Plus, now I’ve got to pretend and look as if this was a surprise when I do open it on Christmas morning. But Mom and Dad will probably find out anyway. And then they’ll be disappointed in me. Worst of all,” Richard wondered, “wouldn’t I have spoiled the pleasure my parents should enjoy seeing me open my presents for the first time? I ended up really regretting looking for that present in the first place.”
Looking back, he’s not sure he would have articulated all those thoughts and emotions in such an adult way. But he definitely felt and struggled with them, regardless of the descriptors you put on them. And it’s definitely affected how he thinks about presents, surprises, and the value of delayed gratification. “Ever since then,” he said, “if I’m in a situation where there’s a surprise coming and I have a chance to know ahead of time, I say, ‘No, I think I’ll wait.’ Because I know it’ll be that much sweeter.”
In fact, today Richard has two children of his own, Genevieve and Bill, aged seven and six at the time of our interview. He shared this story with both of them just a few weeks prior to Christmas. “Bill had already been talking about what he might get, and even speculating on where we might have the presents hidden. But after hearing the story, I could tell he was thinking much more about the downsides of going on the present hunt I went on about his age. And I honestly don’t think he did.”
Nothing can guarantee your kids won’t find their presents before they should, except of course not getting them any. But a story like Richard’s can help them really understand why they might be much happier to wait.
As with all these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
- Have you ever looked for presents before you were supposed to get them? Did you find them? And how did that make you feel?
- What do you think Richard did when he opened up that present on Christmas morning that year? What do you think he should have done?
- Has anyone ever spoiled a surprise for you, like telling you the end of a movie before you’d seen it? How did it make you feel?
- Can you think of a surprise that you would not want to wait to find out, one that you’d want to know about as soon as possible?
[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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