The Perils of Gift-giving

If you’ve read some of my posts here, or visited my blog, you might already know how I romanticize all things homemade. How I delight in the baking of bread and hot glue-gunning of Halloween costumes, and how I dream of a nature-loving, consumption-rejecting, pure and sweet as maple syrup, hand knit, saving the Bay sort of childhood for my kids.

Part of that homemade agenda is encouraging my children to make their own cards and notes, to color the wrapping paper for gifts, to be a partner in whatever sort of giving we are engaged in.

But in my quest to infuse generosity into my kids’ developing characters, I realize I have made the act of giving All About Us. I give people things the kids can help make or decorate or wrap. I use their drawings on thank you notes. Good gracious, what about the recipient? I tell my kids we are thinking of the other person, but truth be told I am thinking more about us. Oh, it’s your birthday? What a fine opportunity to teach my delightful and precocious children the importance of being thoughtful!

Now at first, making play dough for a friend’s casual fourth birthday party seemed totally appropriate. Who doesn’t like play dough? But when I colored our little balls and covered them awkwardly in plastic wrap, I began to have second thoughts. My doubts were growing when my husband came home from work and gave me a look that said: really??

He didn’t say anything though, not until he saw me nestling the balls into an old plastic salad box fished from the recycling bin.

“You’re going to give her the play dough in that?”

I took one look at it and decided it was indeed way too hard core, even for me. I knew I couldn’t present this, even if my daughter Frances covered up the “Wild Organics Baby Spinach” label with one of her own devising (a task she was admittedly uninterested in). So I herded my fussy children into the car to go to the craft store first thing the next morning, where we found a more attractive and durable metal box in which to house our gift.

In the end it was fine. Madeleine is not a kid who distinguishes between homemade and store bought. She liked the colors. I was more concerned about the judgments of the other adults present, but that was misplaced anxiety on my part.

What the whole episode made me consider was what it means to give a gift. It just so happens that my homemade fantasies are in keeping generally with Madeleine’s family’s values, and that Madeleine was not disappointed in the slightest that the play dough didn’t come in yellow plastic canisters with different-colored tops. But another kid would have been, and I hope I will buy the shiny stuff when we are invited to that kid’s birthday party.

Right? Maybe there is something weirdly aggressive going on when we impose our values on others in the gifts we give. Like the copy of Anna Karenina I gave my mom many Christmases ago. Read this thousand-page five-pound book, you’ll love it! No pressure!

What a fine and difficult line we walk. I don’t want to throw out my values every time I encounter someone who lives differently just to avoid social discomfort. Nor do I want to impose my love of kale and fine children’s literature on everyone I meet. Children’s gifts bring out this tension for me. As parents, our private decisions seem to become public so readily, igniting all kinds of low level defensive feelings with people we barely know. I met a mom at the playground a few months ago who schooled me on proper sleep habits and potty training within five minutes of making my acquaintance. Without flinching, I jumped right in with funny personal kid stories, subtly defending my diapered two and a half year old (and his parents). Ha ha, some kids just take long than others, ha ha!

If we get invited to her son’s birthday party, we’re bringing paper airplanes crafted from whatever outdated lime green school flyers the kids find in the recycled paper stack.

Just kidding. …Maybe.

Happy crafting everyone, whether you keep your treasures or give them as gifts. Come visit my blog for more reflections on motherhood; the most recent post happens to be written by a dear friend, guest blogging on potty training her developmentally delayed four year old daughter. I think you’ll like it.

About Meagan Howell

Meagan Howell is a freelance writer and social worker who loves art, books, yoga, friends, music, being outside, and helping to build communities of all sorts. Meagan lives in Maryland with her husband and two children and writes about motherhood at Homemade Time.

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