The Pitfalls of Presents

December 13th, 2012 by Thea S. Klapwald

In time for the holidays, a practical mother reflects on whether it’s better to give or receive.

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The gift-giving party circuit is in full swing as we enter the thick of the holidays. Children are hyper-aware of the gifting potential and are finely tuned every time they walk in to a store decked with fake holly. But with no close or even extended family in our neck of California, the pile of gifts for our son can seem downright paltry. The Post Office delivers parcels from far-flung parts like New York, Kentucky and Germany, but the dribble is comical in comparison to the iconic images I have from such Hollywood movies as George Seaton’s “Miracle on 34th Street” of presents overflowing from Santa’s bag.

Although I am generally panic-stricken at the thought of “not enough presents” for my child, I have yet to go so far as to create Hollywood magic and wrap empty boxes. After all, my home isn’t a stand-in for Macy’s. Knowing when to say “enough” for your child is a skill needed every day, not just on Christmas or birthdays.

Now that our son attends school, his gift quotient has exploded. We need to hire a social secretary (me) to match the correct present with the appropriate card, and keep track of “Thank You” notes. The sheer number of gifts from a party where every child in the class and last year’s class (and the prior year’s class) is invited is staggering.

Many parents handle the en masse gift giving by stockpiling from discount stores, re-gifting, or assuming all superhero-themed toys are good for boys and pink princess-themed toys appropriate for girls. Our philosophy is to try to match a gift to the child’s interest, but it’s not always possible. In that case, we give books.

Of course, every parent is versed in the unspoken policy that if you RSVP “No” to a child’s party, no gift purchase is necessary. My experience with our son Charles’ tight-knit group of schoolmates changed that for us.

One mother Addie gave us a gift despite not attending our party. We were flabbergasted. It is true that we often saw the child Talia, Addie and the father Stephen six days a week due to playdates and parties; it’s true that we really like the family. But was the gesture excessive?

Elaborate ritualized gift-giving is an ancient tradition in many cultures like Japan, Korea and India. That concept of ritual is lost on most Americans, who often perceive gift giving as an imposition – an unwanted cost, a minefield of etiquette and a time-suck as we navigate big-box, discount and independent stores, or buy online.

When my husband Max and I conferred about the appropriateness of giving a gift to a child whose party we did not attend, we came to the same conclusion: It’s a great idea. Anything we can do to forge community in an often-fractured society is a positive step.

The next party we couldn’t attend, we got the child Jillian a gift. We felt great doing it. The parents and child were happily appreciative. It was obviously a win-win situation.

Then Charles’ classmate Kyle missed one of our parties and his parents Paul and Kate didn’t go the extra mile. They did not get our child a gift. It wasn’t about the value of the gift. Our family totally understands the need to economize. We often get around the costly issue of buying gifts by baking cookies and wrapping them in festive ways. Children love this approach – both the giving and the receiving end of it.

Max and I, also, totally understand that circumstances, or “life” as we call it, often gets in the way of good intentions and presents that never get purchased; more pressing things take priority.

When it became obvious that neither was the case with Paul and Kate, that they had chosen not to be part of the community in this way, I was disappointed. We were invited to Kyle’s party and I almost wanted to RSVP “No.”

I didn’t think this would be a part of the solution. We went to Kyle’s party, brought a gift for Kyle (pirate-themed Legos as he is going through a pirate phase) and enjoyed ourselves.

Still, I wondered what educators had to say on the matter. I took an informal poll among educators around the world: The Netherlands, Australia, the USA, the UK and China. Educators are on the frontlines of childhood, receive everything from envelopes of cash to handmade Etsy-style gifts from parents and children, and know the pressures of forming ad hoc communities.

Everyone I spoke with agreed that parties and the experience of giving and receiving gifts offer wonderful opportunities for children to learn important life lessons, and not just the old adage, “It is better to give, than to receive.” Headmaster Karen Ramsay, based in the United Kingdom, thought the “social skills of receiving any gift with a polite smile and a ‘thank you,’ even though it's the wrong color, model or just not what you hoped for” was as critical as learning to selflessly give a gift.

She says the same applies to the disappointment of not receiving a gift at all, and learning not to keep a scorecard of who did not get you a gift.

Life is full of petty disappointments, and heading into another gift-giving season gives me, as a parent, the chance to continue to learn how to cope with them, and pass on the wisdom to my child.

Rather than shielding my child from the rude shock of “not enough gifts” around the Christmas tree or Menorah, or a classmate’s perceived faux pas in not buying a gift, I need to explain the humanity of the situation, put it in context and then move on.

In general, it is better to give than to receive – except where children are concerned. Both giving and receiving become a prime opportunity for children to learn to be more generous. It is about reciprocity, community and a happy ritual they will carry with them forever.

Thea Klapwald is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal and has also written for The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and Variety. She blogs regularly at Awkward Travels with Thea.