As I stood in the foyer of our apartment in Ukraine, a puddle of melting snow formed around my boots. The smell of pine and citrus filled the space. The tree, heavy under the ornaments and lights, welcomed me home. It wasn’t the first time I had seen my house made up for the coming New Year. But there was something about the scene that had me shock-frozen—little bubbles of happiness curling up in my gut. Huddled under the branches, amid bowls of tangerines and chocolates on the floor, I could make out a box with a big, red bow on it. I could hardly believe it—a gift! That night, I struggled to fall asleep. For a nine-year-old hours crawl particularly slowly to midnight. I tossed and turned until darkness changed into a sun-filled morning. Finally, the box was in my hands and the ribbon was hastily thrown off to the side.
The terrycloth robe I got that year was exquisite. It was hard not to feel happy when wrapped in its warmth and softness after a bath. Yet, looking back I realize that the grandeur of the occasion was the product of my imagination. Of course it was a nice present, much nicer than what our Soviet existence might have mandated. But that isn’t why I remember it so well. The real reason is that it was a rare occasion to receive a gift, and that is what made it so special.
These days I observe a different culture of gift-giving when it comes to kids. Parents give often and generously, and so do other family members and friends. There are plenty of occasions—visits, birthdays, favors, school year-ends, holidays. And each occasion doesn’t come cheaply. Even party favors (gifts designed to reward the gift giver) are expensive. Our children are thus conditioned to expect presents of a certain value, even if the price itself isn’t obvious to them. Not only do children expect nice gifts, often they expect specific gifts. Some of my son’s friends, for example, have long holiday lists. Those lists are shared between family members so that the child doesn’t end up with several versions of the same toy. Lists like this make grandma’s life easier—she can get her favorite grand kid exactly what his heart desires.
These are all parts of a well-established system. Children get great gifts and we feel like we are being good to them. But are we? Don’t get me wrong, I love presents. I love giving them and receiving them, but that’s also because I’ve been taught just how precious this ritual is. Our kids, I worry, aren’t getting these lessons.
Though I think birthdays are special and kids should bring presents for their friends, we should involve them in the process. If they spend time and effort getting (or making!) presents for their friends and classmates, the exchange might be more meaningful when they are on the receiving end. Similarly, I think family gifts for holidays and occasions can be wonderful, but not if they’re given every year and in such huge amounts! How often have you seen your child discard a recent gift after only a few uses? That’s because there is nothing special about it. It’s just a present—a very ordinary occasion that happens many times in a year.
So, as we get ready for the one holiday that is legitimately built around the concept of gratitude, and as we gather around the tables to be thankful, perhaps we can give a quick thought to how we might help our kids understand what being thankful means? How can we get them to expect less and to appreciate gifts more when they do receive them?