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Gifts That Count

For some, the advent of the holiday season brings dread from the unhappy anticipation of more gifts one feels compelled to buy for family, in-laws, close friends, and then who else?

Just deciding whom to give a gift to can tax an already overloaded parent, but turning the picture on its side may help shed some of that psychological weight. I like to think of gift-giving in three ways: 1. When it’s a surprise or unexpected, it makes it even more special to the receiver; 2. It’s all about making the receiver feel special and appreciated; 3. It’s a wonderful opportunity to teach children about the value and importance of thinking of others.

I should make a disclaimer: I like thinking of gifts to give people. I like even more shopping for those gifts all year long. It’s a great excuse to shop! And that’s something I enjoy. I know that’s not true for many folks, but it works for me. I also love to receive handmade gifts, but I am not myself crafty or handy or homespun, so I’m not able to give those kinds of presents.

So, whom to think of? My friend Chris, now a grandmother in Oswego and mother of two grown daughters, offers sage advice on this topic: “Anyone who performs a service that you cannot do for yourself, or you’d rather not do for yourself, should be recognized at least once a year for all they do.” The point, she emphasizes, is not the gift. The point is to show someone that you appreciate her and that you recognize her as a person, not just part of our society that churns out services to the rest of the busy crowd. If you get to know Chris, you may be lucky enough to receive two of her hand-knitted potholders, usually given at any time of year just to let you know she’s thinking of you.

Hairdressers and paper-delivery drivers certainly perform tasks that many of us cannot do, or cannot do well. And I had better not forget our letter carrier or mail driver. My mother always put cash in a holiday card for our letter carrier, known as the mailman when I was growing up. Since my grandmother had emigrated from Ireland and worked as a maid most of her life, I was well-schooled in the need to “tip” or recognize people who provide much-welcomed services. Now that I have a brother-in-law who is a letter carrier, I never forget to include a gift for mine during the busy holiday mail season. I’ve been at their home in Wisconsin when he’s brought home gifts from his route, and it’s a touching scene. Tins of popcorn, boxes of candy, some cash: It’s lovely to see how people appreciate him.

Last year marked our first time as “school bus parents” (I made up that label). I wondered what to do for the bus driver. When getting coffee at my favorite, local, owner-operated café in Baldwinsville last fall, it hit me: Get the bus driver a gift certificate! I would accomplish two good things at once: Help my local café and give a treat to the bus driver. Of course, I had my two children sign their names on the holiday card and give it to the driver before the holiday break. At the end of the school year, a more experienced mom asked parents on our block if they wanted to give $5 or so each for a group gift certificate to the driver. She had the kids sign a card while waiting for the bus one morning, and another good idea was carried out.

Teachers are always an obvious target for gift-giving. I am tempted, but pass up the myriad “No. 1 Teacher” doodads I see; I realize they may get inundated with those and where does one put more than one or two? So I have to work harder. A great idea is the book-giving opportunities presented at the annual book fairs in schools. Teachers may request books for their classrooms. I like to steer my children to select one book each from those in my price range, and with a sticker, they can write which class the book is for and who gave it.

Bookstore gift certificates are a terrific idea for teachers. Last year I went with a holiday pin and a snowflake bracelet from one of those home jewelry parties for my children’s elementary school teachers. I thought the jewelry fit with each teacher’s style and the bracelet could be shared with one teacher’s young daughter (since my 7-year-old daughter likes to “share” much of my jewelry).

But one of my children’s preschool and kindergarten teachers told me quite sincerely that the gifts do not have to be from a store. “Gratitude is the best gift, truly. It is a demanding job that takes endless patience and it is an important role in a small child’s life. Kind words in a note or card meant the most to me,” says Fayetteville mom Trina Luttinger, who now teaches older children. “Take the time to find something you like that the teacher has done and express support.”

That was enlightening to hear and reminds me to send in thankful notes to my children’s teachers even now. When my children attended a daycare center, my husband and I decided to put our money where our mouths were, so to speak. Since we believe and talk about how our society doesn’t value teachers and daycare workers, we followed through on that sentiment. We put $25 a teacher in cash in each of the six holiday cards, in which we expressed our appreciation for their tender care of our children each week.

As college professors, we don’t work in a high-paid field either, but we know we make more than daycare professionals. The surprise and delight in receiving those gifts was apparent in the teachers’ faces and thank-yous. I include this example, not to say we’re super, but to note that sometimes we need to stretch to do the right thing. I’ve also had classroom parents suggest parents pool gift money in an envelope for the teacher to receive; parents can give whatever amount they are comfortable with and simply sign their name or the name of their child. My husband has taught many international graduate students over the years. We are always delighted when he is presented with a gift from their home country, and these students are always surprised by how much less respect teachers receive in our country.

One Syracuse-area high school teacher I asked said the gifts dwindle as children get older and they see several teachers each day in their classes. But, she noted, some students will “sneak in earlier or your mailbox will be jammed” with thank-you cards and gifts. They want to say “thank you” and “you’re special to me,” but they know it’s not cool. She asked not to use her name because she didn’t want to make any students feel bad for not giving gifts. But she also noted one gift teachers always love: food! Some parents send in trays of homemade Christmas cookies, candy or fruit baskets to the faculty lounge. “Everybody goes crazy over that,” she says.

Starting in junior high, my sister and I would spend several afternoons in December baking our family’s favorite oatmeal-raisin-chocolate-chip cookies and butter cookies. I don’t remember how my mother started us on this tradition. We would load up paper plates with the cookies and take one to each of our appreciative teachers. I always wondered if they really liked them. Now I know they did. Perhaps I’ll start that with my children in a few more years. A lasting lesson—and gift—to pass on from my mom.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York