In this age of the entitlement complex many parents are rightfully concerned about spoiling their children. I know I am. Last year, after my initial excitement at getting to be Santa for the first time, I was overcome with a gloomy anxiety, a progression of obsessive thoughts and questions: how many gifts is too many? What does he actually need? What will he actually appreciate? I started googling, trying to figure out and ask what other kids were getting. And I think the questions were legitimate– but the fear? I was actually afraid, maybe even a little ashamed, at my desire to give my child Christmas gifts.
Indeed, in response to the epidemic of spoiled kids and materialism many people have forgone gifts entirely or express shame in giving and receiving them. I have had many discussions with many people about the “five love languages,” one of which is Gifts, and I can sense it in their voices, in my own voice– if you are a “gifts person” you’re a little embarrassed to admit it. You feel the need to back it up with, “but it’s not about like big expensive gifts or anything! I just like little thoughtful gifts,” or you feel you should not admit it at all. We treat gifts like a guilty pleasure– something we ought not to like.
And how very sad this is!! I know firsthand the joy and power of a pure and loving gift— even if it is a material one— even if it is something one does not need. After all, I received a lot of gifts as a child. My mom, in particular, was (and is) always thinking of something thoughtful to make or get or put together for me and all her loved ones on special occasions and holidays and “just because.” I experienced and know what that thoughtfulness and unique expression of love did to my heart— it softened it, nourished it, and helped it to grow.
The truth is what makes a child spoiled is not whether or not they receive gifts. What makes a child spoiled is the degree to which they are encouraged and allowed to expect the world to revolve around them. A spoiled child is one who grows up believing they get to ask for anything they want and receive whatever they want and act however they feel like acting. A spoiled child is one who grows up believing the world exists to please them and satisfy them, without thinking of others. And a spoiled child can exist with many gifts or very few gifts. The amount must be monitored according to the person and their personal inclinations and temptations, as it must be with almost every good thing. I don’t know yet how I will have to monitor and moderate Joseph’s gifts just like I don’t know how I will have to monitor the cookies he eats or the friends he hangs out with.
But here’s what I do know. Gifts are not a bad thing— gifts can be a very, very good thing. I know that gifts didn’t teach me to be selfish. In fact, if anything, gifts taught me to be unselfish. When my mom would give me a gift my thought process was often, now I need to give her a gift!! Her sweetness inspired me. Her thoughtfulness taught me. Her love made me love. She jokes that she never had to expose the true character of my special Elf, Elvin– she knew I knew when I started leaving gifts for her as a special Elf, myself. Santa and the Easter Bunny, so often demonized and criticized for being the root of materialism and self-centeredness, did not teach me that I get whatever I want. They taught me that giving is beautiful and joyful. Receiving gifts as a child made me want to give.
In the end, new teddy bears are never necessary. But neither is that extra hug or kiss– that extra “I love you” at the end of the day. None of the “extra” love is ever necessary. But it is the extra that brings us such joy. The meat and potatoes sustain us but it is the dessert that makes life sweet. So it is with gifts. We don’t need them but how beautiful they can be! We shouldn’t be afraid of them. Concerned about our child making demands? Certainly. Concerned about our child not thinking of others? Absolutely. Ready to be strict and no-nonsense about selfishness in our children? By all means. But afraid to give out of fear of spoiling? No way. Giving is not the root of the problem. Giving a child (who does not already abuse gifts) a pure and loving gift is one beautiful way to teach them how love works. It teaches them about their inherent worth— namely, that they are worth the unnecessary joys of life. They are worth the magic, the surprise. They are worth the things that make life sweeter. If a child can learn this, feel it deep within his heart and understand it, then he can learn that it also applies to others. In learning how to properly and graciously receive, a child can thereby learn how to give.