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Using Gift Giving as an Opportunity to Connect

By Heather Pressley, PhD on 11/30/2017 | General

I love the scene from the Grinch when Cindy Lou notices the whole town going crazy, spending money buying presents and she says, “Everybody seems to be kerbabbled. Isn't this just a little superfluous?”

It sure feels that way this time of year. 

We try to keep gift giving simple in our family. One gift tradition we have is that we each give a unique ornament to each member of the family and those are the only ornaments on our tree. We started when my daughter Jamie was born, so after four years we have a beautiful variety of hand-picked pieces on the tree, each with meaning, each connecting us to each other or to a special time or place. A zebra dressed as Santa, an angel to honor Nana, a humongous heart with a home at the center, a pine cone that makes sounds like a bird, a ceramic painted baby handprint. 

When it comes to our extended family though, things get a little more kerbabbled. Jamie is the center of presents as she is the only young grandchild, niece, great niece, or cousin, and little kids are fun to buy for. When we leave South Carolina after the holiday, our car is packed full of Jamie’s gifts from family.

Our larger family sees us once or twice a year so they have to rely on marketing campaigns that cause the “I want that” response in kids to know what is cool this year for girls and boys. 

No kid is a marketing stereotype, but some fit the mold a little less than others. Our daughter is one of them. If you buy her a lot of stereotypical “girl” toys, she won’t be happy. That’s not her thing. She prefers to play with things that go or that she can use to create. She’s never been drawn to dolls, princesses, easy bake ovens (do they still exist?). If she received these gifts (which she did in her first four years of life), it’s not the end of the world. However, it is a missed opportunity to connect and to know our child better. 

Listing all the things your daughter doesn’t like or play with is probably not the best way to win over great aunties. My approach is to share with relatives what she enjoys doing, her hobbies and how she likes to spend her play time throughout the year - not just holiday time. I send pictures, cards with updates, texts and videos. From these stories and vignettes they can see she enjoys things artistic: crayons, markers, paints, stamps, attending a play. She loves being outside and sports. In most pictures she is jumping, rolling, moving, swinging or running. She also LOVES to read which is evident in the many pictures of her reading with daddy and mommy—and now videos of her reading to us!

When Jamie turned four, Great Aunt Debbie from New York, who Jamie has never met in person, asked what she would like. I asked if she’d send her favorite book or a book she loved reading in their family to add to our collection. She sent a beautifully wrapped set of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe series. Inside she wrote, “Your mother loved these books growing up. I hope when you get a little older, you will too.” They sit on the highest shelf of Jamie’s bookcase next to the turtle nightlight; Jamie regularly asks me to tell about when I first read them, why I liked them so much, which was my favorite and, and when I think she might read them. Those unread books have connected all three of us.

Gifts are expressions of love and hopefully connection. All of us want more opportunities to connect with our families, grow closer and learn more about each other. Let’s use this time as a way to introduce our authentically unique children to our families and vice versa. And be slightly less superfluous. 

Heather Pressley, PhD

Author

As a teacher and administrator in public, charter and independent schools for 18 years, Heather Pressley now brings her experience in education to Girls on the Run, ensuring programs are relevant, engaging and girl-centered. Along with geeking out over childhood development research, Heather is navigating the world being a Gen Xer among Millennial parents and enjoys spending time in her garden discussing gender roles and race with her four-year-old daughter. 

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