The first Christmas after I was married, my new mother-in-law gave me a steam iron for Christmas.
“Now you can do a better job ironing my son’s shirts,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said through gritted teeth.
The gift was a hint about as subtle as a brick thrown at my head. She wasn’t at all happy with my attitude that a man who wants ironed shirts should iron them himself. I wasn’t about to change my position because of a shiny new iron. Battle lines were drawn.
That was when I was 20. From my perspective as a mature adult, I can rewrite my story. My mother-in-law was coming from a pre-feminist world. From her point of view, she might have been trying to help me become a good wife as she understood the role. Whichever narrative is the truth, it was a gift gone wrong.
Gifts always send a message, regardless of whether that’s the intention. They reflect something about the relationship between the giver and receiver, their values and their circumstances. Does the gift show that the giver chose the gift with care or was it something that could be given to just anyone? Is there an undercurrent of tension between them or a deeply felt sense of knowing? Is the gift an attempt to correct or one-up someone else in the family? Or is it a generous act of kindness? It depends. It’s not the object that sends the message, it’s the context.
A gift certificate for ballroom dance lessons, for example, will be felt as special by a guy who wants them. But it’s a hurtful gesture if given by the sister who fears her brother’s dance moves will embarrass her at her wedding.
In some families, the aunt who gives an expensive anatomically correct doll to her niece will be seen as enlightened and thoughtful. In other families, she would be seen as pushing her agenda on the more conservative mother of the child. A donut machine will be received as a fun gift by someone who loves to bake and who has no food issues. But if the receiver struggles with her weight and is gluten-free, you have to wonder just what was the giver thinking?
Extravagant gifts from an emotionally distant parent may not be well-received by a child who sees them as an attempt to buy him off. To older children or teens, gifts that don’t match their interests only demonstrate yet again how little a parent understands or cares about them.
Even if not hostile, practical gifts aren’t always appreciated unless the recipient has indicated they are wanted. Although helpful, the holiday timing of the help may provoke shame, resentment or sadness. A care package of canned goods may be just what an impoverished relative needs but may be felt as a tactless reminder of the income gap between the giver and receiver. An elderly grandma may prefer a red boa that affirms her young spirit to a warm sweater that makes her feel generic as well as geriatric.
That iron I got from my mother-in-law? The truth is, we needed one but our budget was tight. I would have been far more grateful if she had asked us if buying an iron would be helpful — and especially if she had given it to both of us.
If you are ever tempted to use a gift to send any kind of corrective message — don’t. It will probably be interpreted as the criticism it is. It won’t put someone on a path you think they should go down for their own good. It won’t win a person over to your point of view. It won’t compensate for not spending the time and energy it takes to maintain a good relationship.
Be equally mindful of the potential negative effect of a helpful gift. It isn’t helpful if the person being helped feels offended or diminished by it. If you want to help someone out with money or practical gifts, talk to them about it. A clear, tactful discussion beforehand can make all the difference.
Gift-giving occasions are an opportunity to be your best self; to show how much you care about those you love and to bring people closer to you through thoughtfulness. This doesn’t require a ton of money. It does require a ton of thought. Sensitivity to the personality, interests and circumstances of the recipient is the key to gifting well.
That means taking time out from the pressures of the holiday season to put yourself in the shoes of the receivers and to consider whether intended gifts will communicate what you want them to. Do your homework. If uncertain what this person at this time would appreciate, ask someone who knows. Then make a promise to yourself to be more attentive to the relationship so you’ll know the person better the next time a gifting occasion comes around.
Steam iron photo available from Shutterstock