The Holiday Season has descended upon us like a green and red freight train bedazzled with tinsel and strings of popcorn. Throughout the year our family tries to make conscious choices about how our lives affect the planet, and the other people and creatures that we share it with. We do our best to limit our consumption all the time. It's never easy, and is hardest around the Holidays.
I've always looked forward to the excitement of birthdays and other gift-giving holidays. I've talked with like-minded parents and, considering the mountain of gifts my children have already acquired. I've been thinking about the questions I ask myself when I decide on gifts for my loved ones. I've been thinking about the gifts I have received over the years, and the gifts my kids receive from friends and family.
Giving and receiving gifts can be a lot of fun and a wonderful way to build relationships, but it can also be laden with a lot of waste, extravagance, and (although we hate to admit it) greed. We can choose to limit these things if we remember that doing so takes some extra thought and work on everyones' part. This is especially difficult when shopping or creating for children, however. The things for kids are often so fun, cute, wonderful… And the kids are targeted so intensely in marketing that they want, want, want. But what do we really give them?
I invite you to pause and reflect on past holidays and birthdays. I wonder what you remember most. Was it the fabulous Thneed that your parents bought on your thirteenth birthday, the one that you begged and pleaded for all year, that you swore up and down was the thing that everyone needs? It cost half of your Mom's monthly salary, you treasured it for two days, it lost its novelty, and within a few weeks it was balled up and forgotten at the back of your closet – before the credit card bill had even cleared the mailbox. For the people I've talked to, the answer is often no. That's not where the memory stayed. Some gift moments are remembered, but they seems to be few and far between.
Instead, you remember the feeling of waking up on Christmas morning, singing songs and lighting candles with relatives seen only once or twice a year, birthday tickles and the way Dad could always make your special favorite birthday cake just right. As I look back I remember the times, not the things…which tells me that the things aren’t as important as I still somehow seem to think they are.
However…I love finding presents for my Little-Bugs, my nephews, my godson, and many other kids that I adore. Who doesn’t love the look on a kid’s face when you hand them a present? It’s hard to resist. I often have to talk my self down while in stores, reminding my self that we have plenty of toys/clothes/whatever. We are raising kids in a culture that assumes that they will buy, buy, buy; a culture that wants to make them into consumers; a culture where they will use significantly more resources than a child who grows up in most of the rest of the world. Many parents are trying to minimize and control some of this consumerism and instill their children with a different set of values. I want my Little-Bugs to value the time we spend with our family more than he values the presents and trinkets that are given to us.
In this article in Mother Jones, I learned the following number.
A TYPICAL AMERICAN child receives 70 new toys a year, most of them at Christmas.
Multiply that out by my three kids and we could be adding more than 200 toys to our house each year. Yuck. That is not what I want in my house, even as I plan for a Holiday of delights and gifts for the Little Bugs. I know many other parents who also would rather not drastically increase the toy mountain. So what is a gifting parent, god-parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, or friend to do?
There are so many factors to consider, beyond number of toys… Outside the rampant consumerism is the question of branding, appropriate toys, and a host of other considerations. Suddenly the toy aisles are fraught with deep decision and question: Elmo? Dora? GI Joe? What toys will make the best gifts? What toys do parents NOT want in their children’s rooms?
The most important thing anyone gifting a kid can do is communicate with the parents.
- Check in with the parents about their child’s interests and hobbies, current favorite toys, what they do/don’t have, what size they are wearing, and all that stuff. Consumer Report's idea of what is hot with today’s three-year old set is good, but can’t match what Mom can tell you about her son’s deep love of trains and how he has almost all the wooden train sets he can fit in his room…but doesn't have a train engineer's hat…
- I believe that many parents would rather give feedback into what will and will not fit in their homes and lives, much more than they want to be surprised when presents are un-wrapped. This is especially true of larger items. We want to surprise the kids! And, if parents know what is in the gift, they can make sure there is adequate time, space, accessories, and/or batteries available. They might even be able to gift complimentary items.
- Have a clear idea of what items will certainly be unwelcome in the family’s home. I knew a mom whose parents ignored her repeated requests to not buy her daughter Barbie and similar toys. She found it necessary to open the presents they send before the birthday/Christmas and weed out what she considered inappropriate for her daughter. These items go to a thrift store, toys-for-tots, or a similar place. That's kind of a bummer for both the kid and the grandparents.
- How soon will the child outgrow this toy (outfit)? When in doubt, don't hesitate to contact the parent and get the necessary information. A thing that doesn't fit or isn't right means that someone has an errand to make to correct the gift. Sigh. More errands…
- If the child has siblings, how will this toy impact the sibling(s)? Will it create a game everyone can play together or is it more likely to be a point of friction?
- Is it truly kid friendly? Washable, unbreakable, easily assembled, and all that good stuff?
- Look for presents that the whole family can enjoy – board games, multi-person projects, appropriate movies…
Looking over this, it may seem like there are so many considerations on kid shopping that it feels paralyzing. Never fear, there are still lots of things out there (we are a consumer culture, remember?). Some ideas to spread around:
- A special event – a baseball game with just the guys, a date with mom, trip to the zoo, etc. builds memories and relationships instead of a pile of things.
- A membership to a kid gym, swimming pool, children's museum is a gift that will give all year long, as well as something to do with the kid(s) on special days.
- Combine financial resources to get that deeply desired bike or other large item – quality not quantity.
- Keep it simple! You spend $75 on the hottest new developmental thing…but the big box is just fort sized. Kids don’t need expensive bells and whistles. They need to have fun.
- Ask parents to give you catalogs and websites where they or their kids would shop. Ask them to highest specifics. You don't have to go by The List, but having the specifics will certainly give you a good place to start.
It's a lot to think about. Some families get around much of it by restricting themselves to handmade gifts, but that doesn't work for everyone. Some people aren't crafty or don't have time. Some kids will get the most delight and use out of a bought item (last I checked its really hard to craft something like an iPod…) than they will from something handmade. It's a balancing act for sure, and one that I'm not great at. I find myself falling victim to myriad consumer impulses, especially at this time of year. I wrote this article as much for myself as for you – a reminder of how I want to gift my kids; a way to keep myself honest.
One last thought:
My husband stumped me the first year we were dating when I asked what he wanted for his birthday. His answer was “The thing that I want that I don’t know that I want.” Now, a decade later, I know to pay attention all year long and when he sighs in August about a book that went missing some years ago, my brain takes note. This is his way of telling me “I want you to really think about me and what makes me glow and then get me that.” He receives with such wholehearted delight that he is a treat to gift.
Ultimately, that's what we should all strive for… Isn't it?