Posts Tagged ‘Gift-giving’

Lurking in the warm gray heart of the pencil is a storm of confusion over values, materialism, and simplicity. This oft-used innocent little gift is actually a symbol of an epic struggle against the perils of modern life, rolled into a thin casing of wood, and presented for the purpose of doing math homework and writing down the names of cute boys. Or perhaps you thought it was just a pencil?

Well, maybe I’m getting carried away, but let me explain. Return, for a moment, to the perils of modern life and allow me an oversimplification: our kids are awash in too much of everything and it’s causing problems.

There’s too much good food and our kids are becoming obese. There are too many fun electronic toys, and our kids are playing them rather than playing the pickup sports of our childhoods. There are too many TV shows and our kids waste one quarter of their waking hours watching them. There is too much stuff and our kids are jaded.

Okay, you say, but what are we supposed to do when we need to give out party favors or offer a reward or a prize? We’re not supposed to give out candy because kids are already eating too many sweets. We can’t give out a great high quality object, such as a new bike, because it’s too expensive.

We should avoid small cheap plastic objects because they are toxic to make, transport, and dispose of. Small cheap plastic objects, by the way, have an additional problem: they breed. Yes, they really do. Put two little plastic hoo-haws under the couch (say, a purple wizard’s hat and an old sticky rubber beetle) and a few days later there will be at least five more hoo-haws, including a green army guy which you’ve never seen before.

Can’t you give a kid anything that doesn’t contribute to some grave social ill? Follow this line of thought down the path, almost, but not quite all the way to its logical conclusion and you get to: the pencil.

Pencils are small and cheap, yes, but they are perfectly glowing with potential and other good associations such as learning, creativity, and usefulness. Remember the thrill you had as a child when you got a new pencil? The enchanting way widening curls of dark-edged wood slid from the sharpener’s edge? The musty smell? The anticipation of all the gargoyles, elves, trucks and poetry that would surely flow from the pencil’s tip?

Well, it’s not quite like that anymore. That experience, although not lost to our children altogether, has been diminished by too much stuff topped off by too many pencils. To some extent, we’ve ruined if for them.

Yes, my kids have a momentary lift when they get anything new, pencil or even green army guy, but it passes too quickly to be meaningful. In our home, the newly sharpened pencil is not carefully treasured. Indeed, I fear it often goes under the couch to breed.

So now we can’t give them pencils either, you cry in discouragement. What then? But we’re not yet at the end of the path. Take just one step over the pencil and you get to this: we don’t have to give kids stuff all the time. Beyond the pencil is the understanding that most kids have enough stuff, which is the very same realization that prompts much pencil giving in the first place.

Of course kids need some toys. Of course rewards can motivate good behaviors. Of course companies may sell more of thing one if they give away free thing two. Of course fundraisers bring in more when they award prizes. In many situations, rewards and prizes are well and good; but they don’t need to be everywhere, all the time, just for showing up.

Kids don’t need a new hoo-haw or medal whenever they complete a treasure hunt at a museum, attend a birthday party, participate on a sports team, attend an event, go to summer camp, raise money for a good cause, eat at McDonald’s, or buy a box of cereal.

Does this sound like a bleak and depleted world? I think it’s just the opposite. If we can turn down the endless shower of T-shirts and water bottles and gizmos and widgets, perhaps we could give our kids back the ability to find true delight in a new pencil. And, we wouldn’t have to clean under our couches as often.

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On your plate is one tiny box, wrapped sweetly in a brown paper bag that your children have decorated with clumpy potato prints.  Curious, you open it, and there inside is a wonderful present: 6 golden glowing hours all to yourself.  They’ve given you the elusive gift of time.  


Were it only so simple to package up precious hours and dole them out at dinner.  


Ask a room full of adults if they would choose more time or more money and the results may surprise you.  Several years ago at a workshop on fundraising for non-profits, I heard a facilitator ask just this question.  Of the forty or so people in the room, (most scrapping by on non-profit salaries) nearly everyone voted for more time.      


The two best presents I have ever given were gifts of time rather than gifts of stuff.  The first was for my mother.  My careful, conscientious mother who opens everything that comes in the door, was drowning in mail.  Years ago, a friend told me he did not get any unsolicited mail.  I was incredulous. No credit card offers?  No catalogs from companies you’ve never heard of?  No requests from charities coming in such voluminous quantities that it is questionable if your $20 donation covers the cost of printing and mailing all the requests?


But it was true.  After hours of phone calls and emails I finally succeeded in dropping my unsolicited mail to about two pieces a month (note that most of the charities you support will agree to send you only one annual solicitation).  For my mother’s 60th birthday, I offered to do the same for her.  She collected all her unsolicited mail for a few months, gave me the two overflowing grocery bags, and I made all the phone calls.  She was so pleased.  Better still, this gift continues to make her happy on a daily basis, twelve years later.


The second gift was for my husband.  Before children, we used to love bicycling together; after having children, a day of cycling together was rare indeed.  On the morning of his 40th birthday he found on his breakfast plate a set of clues to a mystery destination.  (His favorite clue: “Turn left at the pine, don’t you shake, don’t you quiver; if you go the wrong way you’ll end up in the river”).  


A babysitter arrived, and off we went.  With only three wrong turns (and nearly 15 extra miles), he made it to Wolfe’s Neck State Park, where a few friends, plus our babysitter and kids, joined us for blueberry crumble by the sea.  He said it was one of his favorite birthdays, and it was absolutely free because our babysitter’s present was not charging us.


Although these particular gifts took more time and effort to carry out than most simple purchases, gifts of time do not have to be very time-consuming, and they frequently cost little or nothing.  Making your spouse breakfast in bed will likely take you less time than finding and wrapping a gift (on top of the time spent earning the money to buy the gift).


Offer your friends and family coupons for raking the yard, doing the dishes, or making dinner.  Take your mom out for coffee.  Visit a friend you don’t normally see.  Give a baby-sitting coupon to new parents (as the recipient of such a gift, I can tell you this is a super one).  Children, too, love gifts of time from their parents and friends: a promise to bake cookies together, go on a camping trip or see a show would all make great presents.  


Another interesting tidbit I’ve discovered along the way is that little people are very happy with little gifts.  We are the ones that teach them to have big expectations.  


I once let a visiting soon-to-be-3-year old pick any marble he wanted from my large wooden bowl of marbles.  His mother later told me that even after the big party she threw him, this was present he cherished most.  The kid who gets a hefty pile of toys when she is three may expect a bigger pile of toys when she is four.  The kid who picks out a single precious swirling marble when she is three will likely be pleased with something similarly small and magical the next year.


Often the hardest part about changing gift-giving traditions is concern over how your non-traditional gifts will be received.  I recently attended the birthday of a four-year old friend.  I made a batch of applesauce, tied a ribbon around a jar, filled it with the still-warm fragrant fruit, and took it over to the party.  


As everyone gathered around and the boy began opening presents, my heart started sinking.  Rip after rip revealed some fun, fanciful toy: a plastic dump truck, a magnetic drawing pad, colorful action figures.  I wondered if people would think I was being cheap by bringing my small jar of homemade applesauce.  Or that I didn’t care enough to spend time shopping, but simply took the closest thing within reach.  Worst, I wondered what the little boy would think.  


When he got to my present, he picked up the jar and walked promptly out of the room without saying a word.  His mother called after him, “Where are you going? Aren’t you going to finish unwrapping your gifts?”  From the kitchen came his reply, “I’m getting a spoon.”


For information about simplifying the holidays, visit the Center for a New American Dream: http://www.newdream.org/holiday

For tips on getting rid of junk mail: http://www.getridofthings.com/get-rid-of-junk-mail.htm

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