A Child’s Perspective on the Sacred Act of Gift-Giving
Christmas is almost upon us, and when it comes to presents most parents are probably starting to feel the pressure. It comes from advertisements, the media, friends and even family, pushing you to get the best: all this year’s must have toys and accessories, accompanied by all the latest gimmicks and fads.
But if you have young children, they’re likely to see things differently.
My daughter has just turned five. A few months ago, she brought her bag home from school and as usual I began to sort through its contents: her reading-record book, homework, a weekly newsletter for parents; that sort of thing. At the bottom was half of a plastic drinking straw; buckled, full of tiny indentations, and slightly wet. It had clearly been chewed. ‘This is for the bin, right?’ I knew better than to throw it away without asking.
She looked mortified.
‘No!’ It was quickly snatched from my hand, her trust in me broken. It was a gift, from a friend. For a week or more there was nothing more sacred. She carried it around with her wherever she went. It sat beside her plate at breakfast and dinner, and stayed on her bedside table at night.
She understands, too, that the magic of gift-giving works both ways. I often receive presents that require a little imagination, even if they’re not necessarily imaginative. In fact, more often than not, they’re rocks. Or perhaps the word rock gives an unwarranted sense of grandeur; tiny pieces of broken gravel would usually be more accurate.
‘Thank you’, I tell her, and the gratitude is genuine; she’s clearly put thought into finding the right one, just for me. Tossing aside stones of interesting shapes, with colourful patterns or silky-smooth textures, she settles on the least unique, tiny, grey chipping available. I try not to be offended.
‘I’ll keep it in my pocket’, I add. And I do, sometimes for a couple of days. Once I made the mistake of returning such a gift to its rightful home in the big wide world before she’d forgotten about it. When I told her I didn’t know exactly where it was, it was the truth; but watching her pulling settee cushions aside, frantically worrying about whether I’d cope without it, I knew never to make the same mistake again.
Her friends, on the other hand, seem to share her more genuine adoration for stones. I recently witnessed her give one to another little girl at the school gates, who was so thrilled she spent an age trying to put it in a pocket that wasn’t there. The point is, children can see value where we can’t.
Parents often lament occasions when they’ve spent a small fortune on a particular gift, only for the child to spend more time playing with the box. In addition to what is actually an impressive display of their imagination, they’re also demonstrating their ability to appreciate the trivial.
This world is full of wonderful details that pass us by each day, because we’re busy focusing on the things we think we’re supposed to focus on. As I write this sentence I’m listening to a bird beyond my window (a blackbird? A song thrush? Something particularly tuneful, in any case). I confess to feeling more attuned to such tiny details only because I happen to be writing on this theme — on another day, I’d have probably missed out on that little uplift.
But the ability to notice every detail, and decide whether or not it’s worth our interest on its own merits, is an innate one. Children possess it, and we should cherish this fact, because as we get older it slowly erodes.
Christmas plays its part in this. Parents who are fortunate enough to be in the position to buy too many presents, often do. It’s become common practice to try to fit as much enforced ‘fun’ as possible into just one day, and it can overwhelm a child. They’re simply opening too many presents, over too short a period of time, to take it all in. Often, children don’t get the chance to properly examine, let alone play with a new toy before being moved on to the next.
I remember one recent Christmas watching a young family member tossing gift after gift to one side after opening them, before getting to the end of the pile and asking, ‘is that it’? He had no idea what it was, because he hadn’t looked.
His behaviour was judged pretty harshly by the adults there, and to be honest he did come across as the stereotypical ‘spoiled brat’. But it wasn’t his fault; not really. He couldn’t have been expected to take the time to appreciate each gift if he wasn’t given it. He can then hardly be blamed for behaving like he has a factory job, sorting products on a conveyor belt, or for displaying the level of enthusiasm one might when carrying out such a chore.
I’m not saying this is an easy problem to overcome — despite my best efforts, my own children are far from immune. A few weeks ago, on her birthday, my daughter inevitably faced the challenge of opening a multitude of presents all at once. Afterwards, she struggled to remember most of them, and of those she could recall she didn’t know who they were from.
A few days later something came through the door. It was a birthday card and a colouring book, posted by the parent of a boy in the class above her, for no reason other than they live nearby. He seems a lovely boy, and they get on okay on the rare occasions they’re together, but it would be a push to call them friends. Yet this gift is the one she remembers most fondly. She told everyone about it, and carried the card around with her for days.
The reason was obvious: it was the only present afforded the time to be special. The others were never allowed to imbed themselves in her memory, let alone be properly appreciated. Even now, weeks later, she’s excitedly bringing other gifts she’s ‘found’ in her room, not quite remembering how they got there.
When I was little, my mother used to spread out my gifts, leaving many until the following day (and on a couple of occasions, even until New Year’s Day!), but these days that’s rarely practical.
But I don’t think it’s controversial to say we should foster a sense of appreciation in our children. Ideally, they should be able to spend at least as much time as thinking about a new gift as it took to choose it for them; even if it is just a rock, or a chewed up, soggy straw.
Because receiving a gift, no matter how small, comes with the sense of being loved. And that’s just one more thing children understand better than us.