Jess has so many toys. I know most kids have a lot but seriously, this kid has so much. First grandchild on both sides and very much doted on. A granddaughter to a couple who only had sons. First niece. Only child of parents who separated when she was young and so probably over-compensate. A mother and father both of whom love boot-sales, secondhand shops and bargains, a charming child who, when she comes to boot-sales with me, ends up with bagfuls of stuff given to her by random stallholders because she’s ‘so sweet’. Strangers stop me in the street to ask if they can give her sweets because she’s so well behaved.
I do try not to spoil her. We regularly clear out her toy cupboards and she chooses which toys she wants to give ‘to the poorly children’ (i.e. donate to charity). She shares beautifully and often asks if she can give things to others.
The difficulty comes when we reach that time that is fast approaching, the C word. Yep, Christmas. No matter what we say, relatives will send her an avalanche of gifts. As she gets older, more people are buying her clothes (thank goodness!) or giving her money, but even so, she will get more toys than any child could ever need. So what, as her mother, can I get her? I don’t buy her that much but obviously I want to get her something. For her christening I gave her the charm bracelet that my grandmother left me, and I buy a charm for it on special occasions, but that’s not very exciting for a four-year-old.
Jess has had some amazing presents. Some of them have lasted for years. Barnaby, her favourite teddy bear, was a gift from her father on the day she was born and goes everywhere with her. I’m not a teddy person but I still have the bear that my grandparents bought me when I was tiny, and I can picture Jess showing a threadbare Barnaby to her grandchildren in fifty years or so. Her dressing up costumes are dragged out several times a week, a slightly-scary looking doll is another constant companion, and some of her more high-tech toys have helped her no end – the electronic pad that encourages her to write letters is brilliant. So I’ve no wish to sound ungrateful or as if I don’t want her to have toys.
It’s just that, for every teddy she’ll keep for years, she’s got another 20 that are played with once and then languish at the bottom of a cupboard. And who can tell which toys will be the ones that will catch her interest? Certainly not me. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve bought something I thought she’d adore but which has been played with once and discarded. Maybe I should just get her a few cardboard boxes and some crayons!
What I’ve tried to do over the last couple of years is to encourage intangible gifts. My mother bought Jess a course of swimming lessons one year, and a season pass for the zoo last year. This Christmas she has bought season passes to a local attraction for myself and Jess. For my birthday, she bought me a family National Trust pass.
Whilst opening a bit of card might not be exciting for a child, giving someone a year’s worth of days out is a gift that keeps giving. We try and visit somewhere at least twice a month, and every time we go, we have a whole day of fun. We remember the person who gave it to us too: “Let’s go to the zoo tomorrow, we’ve got Grandma’s passes!”
This Christmas, Jess will have a few bits and pieces for her stocking, and maybe a pretty dress for Christmas Day, but her main present from me will be an experience rather than a toy. I haven’t decided exactly what yet, but if I can’t find a good, reasonably priced attraction, then swimming lessons or dance classes perhaps. It means an investment of time on my part, but I’d rather give her something that she’ll remember (or at least get enjoyment out of for quite a while) than spend a small fortune on the latest ‘must-have’ toy that she’ll bore of within minutes.
So if you are stuck for ideas this Christmas, maybe the way to go is with something a little more intangible. If you don’t fancy a pass to somewhere or a commitment to lessons or you are on a very tight budget, how about a gift of time? A promise to a younger child to take them for a special day out wherever they want to go – and a decision not to complain if that means pushing them on the swings for an hour and then splashing in puddles. An agreement with a grandchild that they can come and stay with you for a whole weekend, a guarantee to an older daughter that you’ll make her prom dress, or an offer to give your 17-year-old driving lessons in the family car. Whilst they are young, they barely register who has bought them what and chances are they’ll have dozens of presents to open anyway. And with older kids, why not give them the choice? Once they realise that the latest IPad won’t be forthcoming and the choice is between somewhere they’ve wanted to go for ages and some second-rate gift, they might really enjoy some quality time with their parents.
It’s possibly not applicable if you have a grumpy 14 year old who currently hates the sight of their boring parents, but maybe the way to go in that case is a book of vouchers agreeing to extend curfew on x amount of occasions or allow something that you might not normally do.
I have no desire to discourage presents. And I’m all for donating to charity in lieu of gifts (although that raises a big etiquette question about forcing people to support the same charities as you). But a four year old isn’t going to appreciate the thoughtfulness of buying a goat for someone in a country they will probably never visit – and if you want to teach your children the benefit of giving to others less fortunate, then surely you need to encourage them to make the decision themselves rather than making it a fait accompli?
No matter how little money you have the gift of time is something anyone can give, and quality time spent with your family is more valuable than any tangible gift.