My daughter was shocked. “Mom,” she reported in one of those breathless cell phone calls she makes as she rushes across campus. “There’s a girl in my dorm whose family has a rule that gifts are only given to children and children never ever have to give anything to anyone else! Can you believe it? She’s 20 years old and still thinks of herself as one of the kids! No wonder she has trouble with sharing!”
Every now and then, we parents get confirmation that we’ve done something right. Every now and then our emerging adult kids get what we’ve been up to all these years. Yes, my kids have always been helped to give each other a little something on birthdays and Christmas. Yes, they’ve always been expected to be part of making, finding, wrapping, and delivering gifts to the adults in their lives. And yes, they’ve also been part of donating to charity or participating in some service project in this, the giving-est time of the year. It’s been a central family value that those who can should do for others. Happily, we’re finding that those lessons did stick.
Alfred Adler, an early 20th-century psychologist, believed that good mental health is a consequence of our “social interest,” our concern for our fellow human beings. People whose focus is on helping others, not just getting for themselves, are people who are happiest and most fulfilled. People who are generous and thoughtful of others are less anxious, less depressed, and feel more connected with their community. People who are open-hearted and giving to their partners keep love alive. By teaching our children the joy of giving, not just receiving, we show them how to be mentally healthy and how to live well with others.
Like most values, social interest isn’t something we can just assume children will understand. Teaching them that making a gift is an act of thoughtfulness, not just something to get out of the way, takes time and patience. Modeling, coaching, and actively involving our kids in the art of giving instills the habit.
It’s important to teach that making a gift is not about going to the local dollar store and throwing stuff in a basket. It’s about thinking hard about what the receiver might like and matching a gift to his or her interests and tastes. It’s important to show our children that the amount of money spent is nowhere near as important as the amount of thought. It’s important to talk about the fact that the gifts that are most appreciated are those that are most personal. And it’s important to show them that sometimes time, not stuff, is the perfect way to say “I love you.”
Teaching the Art of Gifting
When children were young at our house, each parent conspired with various combinations of kids to think about what the other parent, siblings, or relatives might like. Hours were spent around the kitchen table or in the barn doing projects. Often the gift was a gaudily decorated “gift certificate” for chores or special time: “This gift certificate may be redeemed to do your chore of the week, no argument” might go to a sibling. “This gift certificate is good for five hours of weeding the garden” might go to a mom or aunt with more ambition than time for a flower garden.
Friends have come up with other creative ways to include children in the giving part of the holiday season.
“We actually start thinking about Christmas in the summer,” says Mike. Mike is a frequenter of summer garage sales. “The kids and I are always on the lookout for things other people in the family would love. This year we found a brand-new, still in the box, porcelain teacup for my mother, an old clock that my brother will love, books and records that match different people’s tastes, and some new and like-new games and toys for young cousins.”
Mike has made a game of “Christmas secrets.” It’s a private and special way that he and his young kids spend summer Saturday mornings, on the lookout for things people they love would enjoy. They are thrilled when something they found in August makes someone happy on Christmas morning.
Lynn and her kids also like secrets. Every year she comes up with a craft they can do together. I happened to drop by last Saturday to find the kitchen transformed into a candle-making operation. This year, she and the kids are making candles for Hanukkah presents. The kids have chosen colors and designs that their aunts and uncles will like. Once the candles are finished, they will wrap them up to deliver to relatives during the days of Hanukkah.
Not everyone is crafty. Some parents give their younger kids a gift allowance and help them figure out what they might buy for the other parent, their siblings, and some of their adult relatives. Older kids are expected to carry on with gift-giving by saving from their allowances, doing chores for pay, or by saving from their after-school jobs. They have learned from a young age that part of the pleasure of the holidays is showing appreciation and affection for others by choosing gifts that are personal and pleasing.
Deb and her family staff the local soup kitchen on Christmas Day. Since they celebrate Hanukkah, they swap kitchen duty with any Christmas-celebrating friends who might come up on the volunteer rotation that day.
Gifts as Love Made Visible
The office of a dean at a local college is festooned with presents given to her by young nephews and godchildren over the years. There are painted rocks with googly eyes, handprints, not one but two pencil cans (one painted, the other with Popsicle sticks glued all around it), and various works of kid-art. She wouldn’t trade any of these artifacts of childhood for 14-carat gold baubles. Each was made with her in mind. Each is an expression of their little boy or little girl love for her. Those now-grown kids take great pleasure in seeing their childhood gifts still on display. They have probably forgotten many of the gifts they received from her but they certainly know that the gifts they gave continue to be important.
One Christmas, our then-4-year-old son gave his 19-year-old cousin a present he had carefully, in 4-year-old style, wrapped for her. My husband and I looked at each other. Neither of us had helped him find a present of that shape and size. She unwrapped it to find a dirty yellow comb he had clearly found on the street. Astonished, my niece asked him to explain. “It’s just the color of your hair,” he said earnestly. “I knew you’d like it.” So it came with a little extra dirt? The thought really did count. The comb got sterilized in a boiling water bath. And the story gets told (despite the now teenaged boy’s embarrassment) as a reminder of how even a lowly comb can be a big expression of love.
The Best Gift of All
Social interest, generosity, selflessness, sharing, even love, are big, abstract concepts for little people to wrap their minds around. Sometimes they are big, abstract concepts that are difficult for even the big folks to fully appreciate. Giving gifts doesn’t have to mean giving in to crass materialism at this time of year. Giving gifts can be a way to make those big, abstract ideas tangible and easier to understand. Teaching our children the art of giving is the best gift of all.