Monday, December 13, 2010

Giving and receiving, for the fortunate and the less so

I am sure that by this time next year (or if we're super lucky, two years from now), I'll be well aware of the season's must-have-or-life-won't-be-worth-living toy. This year, however, I get to luxuriate in ignorant bliss of the commercial orgy occurring around us, confident that the Grape would be thrilled to receive a large cardboard box which he could transform into a fort or freight train.


Not so much about his love for boxes, but about getting him one as a Christmas gift. Obviously R. and I will try to do better than corrugated packaging materials.

In case you're worried, please rest assured that The Grape is also fortunate to have plenty of first degree relatives who love buying things for small people. As far as I can tell, grandparents live for gift giving moments, and if they go a little overboard, who am I to take that away from them?

If their holidays are made brighter by the joy of giving, then that's more than fine with me.

I'm guilty, too, of course. It would seem unthinkable to show up at the family Christmas celebration without gifts for my nieces. Luckily I love our neighborhood toy store (a charming shop called Tadpole) and they probably love me too. Let's just say they don't need to ask my name when I present myself at their counter.

Although last time I was in there, I thought those of us who experience a lack of self restraint in the face of adorable children's merchandise don't have to overdo our own celebrations. Many children in our country wouldn't receive any gifts without the good work of organizations like Toys for Tots and the Salvation Army (among many others). It's not too late to donate new, unwrapped toys for their annual drives. Their websites will direct you to a drop off spot convenient to you.

These organizations are really hurting this year, and donating affords a golden opportunity to teach late-preschool to elementary-age children about charity. Kids are more likely to remember buying toys for the needy than watching mom or dad give online.

Kids slightly senior to the Grape can enjoy choosing gifts for family members. When I pressed my brother about what my two and a half year old niece might like for Christmas this year, he suggested art supplies. Or books or puzzles. L. loves stories and puzzles these days. Easy enough, I said. I can totally handle this.

It took me a second after we hung up to realize what L.'s wishes have in common: they're not merely things. The gifts he listed on her behalf provide experiences. That's what makes them so great.

Paints, puzzles and books don't, like so many flashy, noisy toys, do all the work for the child. Let's be real for a second. I don't care if it's marked "educational," any electronic device that belts out letters, numbers and colors in a nonstop barrage causes more than enough irritation to cancel out any minor learning benefit it might bestow.

Art supplies, puzzles and books allow the child to create something, or see the world of the story in her imagination. And isn't that the reason certain books are cherished long after the whizzing, bleating, chiming must-have widget of the year has been packed off to some charity yard sale?

A 2010 study at San Francisco State University found that people garner far more happiness from experiences than from material purchases. Which to me means that concert tickets, museum/zoo/aquarium memberships, sporting event tickets and perhaps even (depending on the age and interests of the child) various kinds of lessons make fabulous gift ideas.

I don't want you to roll your eyes and call me a Grinch, so I want to be clear: I'm not suggesting children shouldn't receive things to unwrap; the unwrapping of holiday surprises conjures wonderful childhood memories for many of us. I'm merely suggesting that maybe the kids could get one or two fewer packages in favor of some experiential treat that keeps giving for months after the holidays have faded into distant memory.

If you want to buy electronic educational toys, just be honest and admit they're primarily made to entertain your kid. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Though, since the Grape and most of his contemporaries seem to have come into the world with such an uncanny knack for technology that I doubt they'll find such watered down versions interesting for long. I suspect getting the Grape his own "computer" would be a colossal waste of cash. At the ripe age of sixteen months, he's smart enough to know that my iPhone is the gadget he really desires. And he's not keen to accept any phony phones. Nor will he receive his own treasure from the Apple store, in case you were wondering.

While I'm on the subjects of gadgets, let me digress for just a second and suggest that any toy whose decibel output competes with a Rolling Stones concert should not be allowed to advertise itself as a player of lullabies.

I'm laughing at myself a little as I write this, because I know that the Grape is years away from learning the joy of giving, or the merits of an experience compared to a thing. But it's not too early to start modeling what we preach, which is why my nieces will receive a zoo membership along with the their packaged presents.

And don't worry about the Grape. He'll make out just fine. His stocking is already hung with care, ready for Santa, alongside the ones marked for the Siren the Cat, Lucy the Kitten and Lila the Newly Arrived Dog, who checks diligently for tasty developments because she's seen Lucy do so.

For now, the Grape thinks they're some new decoration. Won't he be surprised when, less than two weeks from now, those over sized red socks yield something fun?

Not as surprised as the kid whose parents told him Santa wasn't coming this year, because they needed the money for heat, medical bills, rent or food.

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