Today I have to spotlight my daughter, a tiny icon. You may remember that we had a “breakthrough” around here when my son decided that he both could and would draw, freely. It was pretty momentus for us.
His birthday was just around the corner and we take presents pretty seriously. We both favour the hand made kind of gift, the ones that take very little money but do require a great deal of thinking time and effort.
So this is a magical feat of artistry to me. He drew the pictures and his big sister transferred the images to the computer, coloured them in and then transferred them onto a t-shirt.
The gift was a hit. He was both mystified and delighted. that was the real gift, the gift to the giver. It may seem a little odd but it is all too familiar territory. We adults agonise over what to give, the right match, something that will give pleasure but 99% of the time, we fail.
It has been a long and tortuous path.
Initially if was basic. Either one of them would be absorbed in one of their favourite activities when a present intruded upon the scene. The present, whatever it was, would hold no interest, merely an unwelcome interruption. When whatever it was, when unwrapped, would still be of no interest, even if it fell into the category of their interests. The terms novelty and new, which are commonly attractive, were not so here.
In the beginning there were no words available which meant that we parents were quite at a loss to know what exactly had gone wrong. Over stimulated, over excited, wrong present? We guessed. We had no idea.
Later there were words, in-between the meltdowns, but they didn’t help much either. We learned that big present opening sessions were guaranteed to disappoint everyone. Far better to work on one gift at a time, over a long period of time. Opening presents became a finely orchestrated production. The key to peace was the ability to peek inside their skulls to see what it was that they saw and expected to receive. We lacked that ability. The disappointments and hurt feelings of all parties sapped energy. All we could do was to work upon their expectations, to accept less than perfect, lessen their investment in the unknowable outcome and sow many seeds in advance.
It’s not just the big occasions like birthdays, but the little casual occasions.
Americans are a generous race. There appears to be no occasion to small to exclude a gift for children; the dinner party, the visit, the play-date, they all include a little gem of ‘I picked this up, I thought you’d like it,’ words guaranteed to induce doom. Many a parent will pick up some candy on the way home from a trip or an errand. Something catches the eye. A reward for good behaviour whilst with a baby sitter, or merely the other parent. Guilt for time off, bribery or a swell of joy to share. It doesn’t matter what the motivation is, nor what the gift might be, they all result in misery.
People have a hard time understanding.
Children and presents seem a perfect match. A kid in a candy store or a toy shop. But not these children. If these children go to a toy store, assuming you can get them into the store in the first place, they may find one thing that they find attractive. It is probably something that they already have, something from their very narrow category of current interest[s]. It is far more common to find that there is no ‘one thing’ that they find attractive, unless you count the price stickers and the electric door.
No so long back, my eldest daughter had been away in Mozambique for a long time. On her return she brought gifts, tiny, local delightful, well chosen gifts, but it was crowded. She was out of practice but well intentioned. She took him aside for a special one on one session. She was so sure she had a match. She could cope, it would be fine, he would love it, they would connect after her absence. Joint attention, no pressure, in the zone. How could he resist? Every child would be at least intrigued. I watched her billowing confidence. Maybe this time? Don’t use the word present! Why not later when there are less people, less noise, less busyness. She was a cheerleader of presentation with simple language at his height, un-intimidating. He screamed as he hurled it across the room and lunged to the floor. The room went silent as everyone turned to take in the scene, the long lost sister and the spoilt little brother. Murmours of ‘jet lag’ whispered through the room as tears of abject disappointment spurted from both of them.
I could write on this one topic for hours, each little step, each moderated accommodation to bring the boys to where they are now, but I’ll leave it for now. I prefer to bask in the pleasure of witnessing my daughter’s first ever success, after a decade of trying she hit the right note, a harmonic tone that resonates between all of us.
So if you ever receive an invitation that includes the phrase ‘please, no gifts,’ try and be cruel to be kind.