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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Gift giving and getting.

Christmas is a wonderful time of the year, it can also be a pretty rough time of year. Stressed out shoppers turn town into a madhouse and the roads into death traps. Indicating becomes optional and giving way is strictly forbidden. Sadly, domestic violence rates always increase at this time of year and  women’s refuge is  under the greatest pressure over the holidays with thousands more women seeking refuge with their children. Depression is at an all time high over the silly season and I can see why! For a holiday that is supposed to make us joyful and thankful we sure do get a little bit grim!

For me Christmas is about balancing the excitement and joy of Christmas with the stress that can come with it. Sometimes it is so easy to get caught up in the whole season whirlwind that we rarely take time (excuse the clich├ęs) to stop and smell the roses, or enjoy the simple things.

A few years ago I blogged about how I didn’t do any shopping for Christmas, and instead made all of the gifts I gave. This year I had a newborn and a toddler and simply didn’t have time. Sometimes you have to compromise on the ideals you have. Gift giving as a rule is never as simple as it seems, we all have the person who is impossible to shop for  and inevitably every once in a while you get given that gift that makes you raise your eyebrows and think ‘you really thought I’d like this? How well do you know me?’ Nevertheless it’s always important to remember that it’s the thought that counts and focus on the company rather than ‘what did I get?’

Gift giving has become a bit of a complex social ritual fuelled by rampant advertising that starts in October and carries on through the boxing day sales. Sorted dot org remind us that Christmas is not a time to get into debt and yet that’s exactly what a huge percentage of kiwis do, buying gifts that we can’t afford, that have usually been made in a 3rd world country by someone far less fortunate than us, with packaging that has the same cost environmentally and economically as the original gift and in many instances these gifts will sit in the cupboard un-used, unworn or broken. If someone wanted to write a song about the true spirit of Christmas it might go a little bit like this.

Gift giving and receiving becomes even more complex when you have children. As parents we generally have certain ideals or standards by which we raise our children and this will often apply to the toys we let them play with.  Some parents don’t allow guns or violent toys in the house, other parents worry about the toxins in plastics, some parents can’t afford to keep toys filled with batteries or have simply run out of space for more big toys, some parents prefer heuristic or natural toys or have households that have a ‘fair trade only’ policy, other parents object to toys that are highly gendered or are age inappropriate and some toys are in fact just plain inappropriate. It’s important to remember that even if you don’t agree with some peoples standards or ethics you should respect them. Isn’t that what nice people do?

Then there are people who have more specific toy requirements that relate to religion, culture or particular situations.  You don’t give Amish children dolls with faces, you wouldn’t want children who had just gone through a divorce to receive a story that ended in a ‘happily ever after’ romance, you wouldn’t give someone with a peanut allergy some homemade peanut brownies and you wouldn’t give a pregnant or breastfeeding mother a bottle of wine (or would you?) You certainly wouldn’t give wine to a recovering alcoholic.

And sometimes there is nothing specifically wrong with a toy except that it’s one of those toys that causes constant tantrums or fights, is always underfoot, breaks all the time and makes horrible noises designed to drill into a human brain and cause an auditory lobotomy. These toys are usually heavily advertised at Christmas time as the perfect gift, instead they should be relabeled as the perfect torture device designed to drive parents insane. Usually it’s the kind of toy your children will watch play rather than play with it  and after a brief honeymoon it tends to end up at the back of the cupboard with its cousins  or broken and at the dump. Or even worse, your child doesn’t like it, they open the present, have the facial expression of someone who just ate a cold crap pie and parrot the polite expectations before moving on to the next gift.

So what happens, when at Christmas a well meaning relative gives your child a gift that is inappropriate? Do you let your child keep it even though it contradicts your whole parenting ethos or do you get rid of it after a polite length of time? I was lucky enough to be involved in a heated debate about this on a parenting forum, which in the usual fashion devolved into a name calling contest a 12 yr old could be proud of.  The main difference in opinion seemed to centre around the parents who in some instances wanted to limit or control the gifts coming into their house and were labeled inconsiderate for doing so. The thought that unwanted gifts might be donated to charity or stored for later by the parents was met with howls of ingrate and uppity.

The only takeaway lesson I had from this debate was that gift giving and receiving is TOUGH, so tough there are even reasonably strict etiquette guidelines surrounding the whole process. Looking up ‘gift’ in the dictionary cleared it up a little bit,

 a gift or a present is ‘the transfer of something without the expectation of receiving something in return’

And that’s the problem isn’t it, too often gifts are given with expectations attached. Expectations of a similar valued gift in return, a certain level of gratitude or gift ‘brownie points’. I’m the first to admit that a well considered gift that elicits a great response of appreciation makes both the giver and the receiver happy and means warm fuzzies all around. I also agree that upon receiving a gift you should always be gracious and grateful because receiving a gift truly is a special thing. Do you past the gift giving and getting etiquette test?

But can gift etiquette get out of hand? Does gift etiquette mean you hang onto the sweater in size XXL even though it doesn’t fit and you never wear it? What happens when you tell Aunty Maude that the mauve leg warmers she knitted you were fabulous (while cringing inwardly) and she proceeds to knit you a new pair every year? What about the obligation gifts you receive from relatives who went and bought 10 x bottles of chateau du plonk or 10 x $2 shop toys for the cousins and nephews and nieces without any real thought of the recipient but more as a need to meet a gift requirement (I call them obligifts). Or the feeling of guilt or obligation you get when you realise you only spent $10 on Uncle bobs gift and he spent $100 on yours. Does Christmas gift etiquette justify teaching your children to lie when we spend the other 364 days telling them that lying is wrong?

More importantly what are we teaching children about gifts?  I would like to think I am teaching them that gifts come from the heart and it’s the thought that counts. I also shy away from the all out consumer fest that seems to dominate Christmas, there is so much more to the season than spend spend spend and I hope that I can show my children that the season is far less about the giving and getting of things and more about family and friends. In this spirit I have made up my own parent’s gift etiquette rules for ethical or conscious parenting.

Because if you're not good the Krampus will come and get you

To the giver:

Consider the parents as well as the children, while little Xavier would love a bucket full of lollipops, the parents who just took him for his first filling will be less pleased and more than likely will confiscate the candy causing upset all around.

If you are getting a big ticket item it pays to check with the family first to avoid double ups or even worse giving a gift that they cannot use. A trampoline for a family that will have to landscape their back yard so they can use it is a bit tricky to receive graciously even though it is a wonderful gift to receive.

Check the age ratings on toys, a toy that has to go into a cupboard for 3 years until little Margaret is old enough to use it is a challenge of patience and storage to everyone.

If parents tell you their child is unlikely to like or play with certain items, they will be telling you the truth. They are not making this up and surprisingly they tend to know their kids quite well.

Don’t factor price into it but do factor quality, a toy that falls apart within half an hour is a rotten gift to get and usually means tears. No one cares if it cost $1 or $100 but paying any money for a toy that will break is environmentally irresponsible. A potted seedling or sketch book made of recycled paper is just as exciting to a small child as the latest $20 wonder from the red shed.

Make conscious gift decisions, think about what the child would really like and rather than what would make you happy. Giving a little girl a ballerina dress because you love ballerinas when they love playing with the family tool box means the gift may go unused and unappreciated.

Children are sometimes brutally honest, if they don’t like something they will tell you. Don’t be offended, they haven’t yet been indoctrinated into the laws and tenets of gift getting - telling them to lie about a gift seems to be a bit hypocritical. If they tell you they don’t like something instead of telling them they are ungrateful and selfish offer something proactive they can do such as donate it to charity or exchange it.

Don’t be afraid to shop for second hand items, some of the best gifts we have received for our sons have been garage sale finds, hand me downs or upcycled. A gift that has been repurposed shows thought and is a great way to avoid unnecessary packaging and manufacture, great for the environment.

Don’t buy gifts just because, if you don’t want to get a gift or don’t know what to give then a nicely written card is just as good. Seriously.

Remember, with children books are ALWAYS welcome.

To the receiver:

Model gratitude to your children, be genuine with your response and receive gifts graciously.

If you have certain rules about toys then it’s polite to let family and friends know before Christmas so there are no upsets.

Before Christmas get your children to round up unused or grown out of toys and donate these to someone who could use them more than you and your family.

If a gift is unsuitable then consider the giver as well as the receiver. Sometimes it is worth a compromise, but sometimes it is not. If someone has gone to a lot of effort and the family rules can be smudged a bit then it is often worth it. However if a gift really is completely unsuitable then you may have to politely let the giver know or discreetly disappear the gift. This is not snobbery or ingratitude it is simply something we do as responsible parents from time to time.

Teach your children not to have gift expectations, letting them know that gifts are nice but not necessary can help them deal with the ups and downs of gift getting.

Get your children involved in gift making and gift giving even at a young age so they learn what goes into gifting and appreciate what they may or may not receive all the more.

Write thank you cards or notes with your children, it’s a nice way of acknowledging a gift and letting the gifter know they were appreciated without incurring gift debt.

It’s okay to tell people you are not doing gifts for Christmas or that you are only doing handmade, but make sure you don’t enforce guidelines on people who will be upset by this.

If your child receives too many gifts it is okay to stagger opening them over a few days and put them into a toy rotation so some toys spend time in a cupboard. If you are staggering their opening then make sure you check with the gifter first as some people are eager to see the children open the gift or will only be in town for a few days.

To everyone:

Christmas is a time to remember those who are less fortunate, womens refuge and other family charities always welcome gifts that can be given to children. is a great place to get and give unwanted gifts so they can be passed on to someone who will appreciate them more. An environmentally and socially conscious choice.

Agree on a spending or gift cap per person before Christmas

Consider agreeing to get eco gifts instead or only fair trade items.

One Christmas our family agreed to get only second hand or recycled gifts, it was one of my favourite Christmases.

If you have large extended families with loads of cousins, nephews and nieces consider making a ‘no gift’ agreement to lift stress and focus the enjoyment of gift getting.

Consider doing a secret santa where everyone only gets one gift each by secret ballot
If you love giving gifts and have lots of people to gift to then start buying or making well in advance of Christmas.

And remember – a present is not worth getting upset about. Christmas is a time to be with family or friends and turning what should be a lovely gesture into a source of anger or resentment isn’t worth it. Your children won’t thank you for it later.

Maybe the best gift you can give for Christmas is to be nice to someone you don’t know or give a gift without any expectation of reciprocation.

Perhaps the best thing is to take a leaf out of this kid's book.


  1. You're very much missed Siananigan. I had no idea that thread had even taken place until yesterday! I thought you were just taking some time out with the new arrival... talk about making a mountain out of a molehill, that thread was just so far off the chart it wasn't funny.

    They may be an evil international corporation intent on taking over the world (at least some people think so) but thank Google for allowing me to find you :-)

  2. Haha, hi Chundamars. Nice to hear from you. that thread certainly did get a little odd. I am glad to be out of it an in a cyber parenting space that has more tolerant types in it. Though I do miss a number of people sadly! Including you of course.

  3. Hi Sian,
    Thanks for writing this post. We've long been struggling with our own journey down the "we've got too much stuff" road, and really struggle at Christmas time with all the obligifts, both as givers and receivers. Now that we're expecting our first baby the pressure has gone up a notch and we've been trying to work out a plan to approach this without offending the people we care about or compromising our values. Tricky! You've given us something to ponder in the next few weeks (several months after you wrote this I notice!).
    I say thank goodness for freecycle and the occasional no-obligation regifting.