By Jeanmarie Devinney
“Are you kidding me?” my friend asked. “I feel sorry for you if that’s the best gift you’ve ever received.”
What she didn’t understand was it was also one of my most memorable parental successes. As a single parent at that time with two young children (under the age of eight), there were invisible issues it seemed no one ever discussed--until it affected the children. In all the reading I did with the hopes of being the best possible parent, I didn’t ever recall the topic of gift giving and young children. I never found an article telling Mom (or the single parent) how to help her young children buy her a birthday present, or even if she should. This was how I imagined it; “Let’s go, kids. It’s time to buy Mommy a present.”
Was it assumed that all single parents had someone in their lives to help with these situations? Well, in our case, there wasn’t an obvious candidate, and I didn’t realize the impact it had on my boys.
The first time this situation came to pass was my birthday. The boys were four- and seven-years-old and it never occurred to me to take them shopping to buy myself a present. I thought I didn’t need anything, and more importantly, money was tight. That was a mistake. My sweet little children were openly upset when they had nothing to give me on my special day. Even though I liked ignoring growing one year older, my children felt it was a day to be celebrated. They didn’t understand they were my gifts and it was OK they didn’t have a present to give me. I realized then it wasn’t about money or needing anything; it was the act of giving. Children need to feel included. That was the most important thing--or so I thought.
The next gift giving occasion was Mother’s Day. Determined to learn from my mistakes, I recruited a trusted friend from work with whom the boys felt comfortable. Meg took them shopping armed with a little money and a few ideas of gifts the boys could pick out on their own. The outing didn’t last long but everyone came home smiling. They had ideas of their own, Meg informed me with a smirk, and were proud of their choices. She helped them wrap their findings and it was a great experience for all.
Mother’s Day came and the boys couldn’t wait to give me my gifts. Grinning from ear to ear, giggling non-stop, they brought the gifts into my room. My curiosity was heightened as the wrapped gifts held no clues to their contents. The gift they were most excited about was in the shape of a cylinder about one foot in height. At their request, I opened it first. There it was: a can of bug spray. Bug spray? Not yet understanding the meaning, I said the usual "wow" and "thank you." Since I found this surprise funny, it was easy to laugh and cheer along with my children, who were overcome with joy. It’s wasn’t until my youngest blurted out, “So you can kill the spiders yourself,” that I understood this was a well thought out gift with great personal meaning.
My one true phobia has always been spiders. I can handle all other living or non-living things in our day-to-day lives--just not spiders. We’d recently had a spider incident in--of course--my bedroom. The spider was so huge, I couldn’t make myself get close enough to hit it with anything. The children, who usually rescued me from all spiders, wouldn’t go near it either because of its size. Needless to say, this incident ended with a bribe promising a trip to the toy store and me sleeping in the living room for a week (even with the spider dead and gone).
So you see, having chosen this gift, my children didn’t think of what was cool or popular, like a music CD. And they didn’t base the value of the gift on the price. How many times as adults have we felt the need to spend a certain dollar amount on someone’s gift? We’re afraid to offend by spending too little, thus putting the value of the gift in the cost and not the thought or effort. My children thought of who I was before they chose my gift.
I started writing this to share my experience and opinion on the importance of teaching our children the meaning of giving. However, in the process I realized there was a greater, less obvious lesson to be learned by parents and adults. Young children are pure at heart: untouched by status, money, or commercialism. How else could they have thought of such a personal gift as bug spray without worrying about price or popularity? I applaud my friend Meg for her pure sweetness and allowing them to purchase what they wanted, instead of what I suggested. Children not only need to feel included; they need to know their wants and feelings are important, too. Honestly, I’m not sure I would have let them buy bug spray as a gift for someone for fear of my own embarrassment.
The parental success was not that I found someone to take the boys shopping, or even that they wanted to buy me a gift. It was that my children taught me the true meaning of gift giving from the heart. Imagine what else could be learned for our children if we opened our minds, took a step back and watch.
Now remarried, Jeanmarie survived single parenting and is writing about its challenges. She and her husband, Tim Devinney, live in Pittsboro, NC, with her two boys, Tyler (12) and Brennan (9) and their two dogs, Ginger and Meg.