Monday, January 23, 2012

The Birthday Present Dilemna

Grandpa is getting me a pony!
Today's post comes from our friend Rob. You might remember him as the dad who gets annoyed when old ladies ask him if he's babysitting and he's all: "I'm not babysitting. SHE'S MY KID."

A little more about him:
Rob Kristoff was educated as a Pastor, licensed as a teacher, but works as a freelance writer.  But in reality he spends most of his time with his daughter, who just turned 6.  Read more of his writing at (where they call him 'Monkey's Uncle') &

Or follow him on Twitter:  @RobKristoff.

The other day I got a pleasant and  unexpected opportunity, and it brought on a sort of epiphany.  I write stories for a website, and through some contest that I was unaware we were a part of, I won a gift certificate to this kids’ clothing place that seemed very expensive and exclusive.  I’d already been thinking about writing what you’re reading now, but this sort of crystallized and encapsulated the thoughts that were forming.

In my little family, we don’t have enough money.  I mean, who does, right?  But I only say that to explain why Grandma and Grandpa, friends,  aunts and uncles, and whoever, might feel the need to give us things.  And they’re nice things!  Objects that we can’t, in good conscience, replace just because we’re proud.  Often, they’re the things we’d buy anyway, if we could.  Which is cool:  My kid wears the kind of clothes and shoes, and rides bikes, that she really might not, if generous others hadn’t given them to us. 

I’m thankful for those things others have given us  Let me emphasize that point.  Ever since she was born, people have been incredibly generous.  And I also love the aspect of family wherein her mother goes shopping with her and comes home with new things I’ve never seen before.  Really. 

But there’s always been an undercurrent, since the very beginning, and in my head it sounds something like this:  Do you really think I don’t want to buy my daughter cute stuffed animals?  Or pretty clothes?  And yet, shouldn’t I be spending that money on bills, especially when someone else gives her these things?  But what do I give up, by not allowing myself that experience?

But then there’s also this:  I don’t want to teach my daughter to value things more than people.  Or  relationships, and adventures.  And with all the possessions she gets from others, I don’t feel like it’s philosophically responsible to buy her even more.  Especially when I know the truth- that less is often more, that a simpler life materially can often mean a happier life spiritually and/or emotionally.  ‘How much does she NEED?’ is a much better question than ‘How much stuff can fit into our house?’

I'm three and I have an iPad. Suck on THAT.
So with all that in mind, I’ve started buying her impromptu tiny gifts.  A little Japanese puzzle eraser that looks like a hamster.  A 29 cent pink bear.  And now, thanks to that pennies-from-Heaven gift card, a new pair of rain boots, some wool mittens, and a hat I liked:  just because.  And it felt good.

Which leads us, inevitably, to the birthday problem, as we all knew it had to.  What does the Minimalist- Zen Master- Great Provider do when Grandma or Grandpa, despite all his pleas, literally buries his child with gifts at birthdays or winter holidays?

I want to take a stand for that old bit of folk wisdom that ‘they like the box as much as the present’, but to be honest, I also feel a little competitive about it all.  “You think YOU can buy her the perfect gift?” I want to say,  “Wait’ll you see what I buy her!”  Oh, sure, it sounds funny, but it’s a very real feeling.  Painfully so.

So I try to go for less volume and more quality.  I hope she someday appreciates this, even if she doesn’t notice it just yet.  But isn’t that a moment too subtle to hope for?  “Wow, everyone else bought me tons of junk that first birthday, but Dad bought me a wooden rattle- dyed with organic vegetable dyes- that looked like a monkey.  And it set the course for my life:  Minimal- but ecologically responsible and high-quality- material possessions.” Um, yeah…

This is the view from the trenches of this neo-recession.  This is the tension that some of us who are- let’s face it- overeducated and underpaid, live in.  To those who know me:  this is why any sort of gift-giving holiday leaves me crosseyed, and with the veins in my temples throbbing. 

Still, those red-striped boots are pretty sweet…

(c)Herding Turtles, Inc. 2009 - 2011

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