The Gift Giving Question
Written by Irina Gallagher
It’s Thanksgiving week here in the States, the official beginning to the holiday season. Finally, the weather has chilled delivering a festive feeling. Like every year, we’ll be celebrating all that we have to be thankful for by spending time with family. And then, if the biggest retailers have their way, we will be rushing out to spend all the money we have (or don’t have) on tons of useless clutter that we don’t really need on Black Friday. This afternoon I heard an advertisement on the radio that Toys R Us – which on a regular day is basically a sensory overload command station – will be opening their doors at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. So make sure you shove that turkey in your mouth very quickly so you don’t miss the deals. I would rather pay someone not to take part in any of this Black Friday shenanigans, especially at Toys R Us. But it’s all in the name of showing the people that we care about them with loads of stuff, right? The more stuff the better, they tell us.
Lately, it seems like the tides are turning on this massive gift-giving, shopping extravaganza. Thank goodness. I’m continuously coming across awesome lists online of non-toy gifts and wonderful alternatives to toys that provide five minutes of excitement. Things like gift memberships to science centers, museums, and aquariums are gifts that last all year and provide countless hours of enjoyment. Help with classes for kids is always a great idea. Kids are expensive. All of the enrichment activities we fling our children into are quite costly. Be the guy that can feel proud when your niece is swimming in the Olympics in ten years and you helped pay for swim classes. Another great idea is donating in the kid’s name to a worthy cause. It may seem boring, but kids aren’t shallow. They understand so much more than adults give them credit for (and if the kid that you’re shopping for is shallow, then you should definitely go this route – it sounds like they have too much stuff as it is. I hear The Human Fund is pretty good). Adopting an animal like a sea turtle which can be tracked as it swims across oceans or donating money toward animal sanctuaries which the child can then keep up with online are such a great gifts that can bring an element of both empathy and science into a child’s life. There are so many great ideas for the non-gift gift. But if you’re going the gift route, keep reading – keep reading anyway, there will be a quiz next week.
If you happen to be shopping for one of these annoying families that try to keep things minimal and seem ungrateful when getting too much (trust me, they are grateful, they are just massively overwhelmed by the excess). Here is a very simple suggestion. When choosing a gift ask yourself: What is this gift cultivating?
Does the gift cultivate or hinder imagination? It’s been proven in multiple research studies that open-ended toys such as wooden building materials or simple dolls foster the imagination and help a child carry out his/her very important job of creating and fantasizing through play. One-function toys that are set in their ways and do the work for the child (beauty queen Barbie, anyone?) do just the opposite. Over time, they limit the scope of a child’s imagination. The more such one-function toys a kid has, the more negative impact it makes on the brain and its ability to play and create. (Check out the book Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne for more on this).
Are you cultivating a less is more approach to life and with that the virtue of attentiveness? What does that mean? It means that the deluge of unnecessary stuff in our kids’ lives is causing them to not only want more and more, but it’s also limiting their appreciation and attentiveness for the things that they do have.
Here’s an example: 9-year-old Jane is given a small doll. Jane is able to care for the doll, she is able to notice the doll’s details, and she is able to create a connection with the doll based on the fact that her attention is drawn to one object. 9-year-old Jill, on the other hand, receives the same doll, plus three more dolls from the same series to complete her collection. Because Jill’s attention is divided in 4 different directions, she is not able to focus on any one individual doll, thus limiting her creativity for its use as well as connection and appreciation for said toys. If this is a family habit of giving “the whole collection,” so to speak, Jill is in jeopardy of being ingrained with a “always wanting more” mentality.
Is your gift cultivating an affinity for craftsmanship or is it embracing the throw-away culture approach to life? Basically, do you plan to spend loads of dough for piles of plastic, battery-operated, mass produced stuff (I would hedge and say “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” but I can’t honestly say that, so onward), or will you perhaps support a craftsperson who put their heart into making something one-of-a-kind? While it may seem like this is not really very important and why should gift giving be taken so seriously, it is in fact important. It’s important because the things that a child engages with shape the way in which the child plays thus how their brain will develop. The childhood toys will also shape what a child is drawn to as they grow.
Is your gift cultivating simple appreciation or manifesting a need for permanent material wealth? There is so much more to a gift than permanence. Kids are perfect examples of this. It’s not that we must teach our children to be thankful and appreciate small things, things which may not last forever – they already have this ability before we interfere with their natural processes and ingrain in them our own “need” for permanent, material objects. Kids have the ability to appreciate so many things which may seem trivial to adults – sand, twigs, pine cones, a box! Their colossal imaginations can transform all of these things into multitudes of objects. They have the ability to appreciate consumable gifts – not just food, though if you gave my toddler a box he could sit in containing a watermelon and some mandarins he could eat, you would win the present of the year award. Bath soaps, crayons, play dough, sand – these are all consumables. These are all gifts for which parents will be thankful because they aren’t going to be taking up permanent residence and kids know they won’t last an eternity (unlike beauty queen Barbie), and that in itself brings a bit of magic to the present. If we consistently give things with no expiration, we are bypassing the important lessons of learning to let go of material objects.
This is not meant to take fun out of the holiday gift-giving. It’s only meant to make the giver acknowledge that whatever present you choose can cause an impact, be it positive or negative – you choose.
So, with that, Happy Black Friday, everyone!