The Expectation of Gifts

Last week in my post Back to Basics Minimalism, I mentioned briefly that here in the South we find ourselves living in a culture that places an undue value on gifting. A few readers asked for greater explanation of this observation, which prompted me to think a post on the topic might be interesting (or even enlightening). So here goes…

When my sister and I were growing up, gifting was pretty much reserved for the holidays. For Easter, we knew the Easter Bunny was going to bring us a basket full of chocolates and maybe a stuffed animal. For our birthday, we might get that “one thing” we’d been wishing for for the past few months. And at Christmas, all manner of boxes could be found under our tree. To say the least, the holidays were special for us, and I believe part of what made them that way was that we didn’t get presents or treats or rewards every day. In fact, I can count on one finger the number of times I went to the store with my Mom and came home with a new toy for no reason.

Not once during my childhood did I ever feel poor though. We had everything we needed and then some. We had bicycles and baseball bats, a closet full of clothes, a cabinet full of food, and an Atari. And because I’d never been taught to expect something more all the time, I always felt like we were set. I like to think I was a pretty contented child.

A lot of people poke fun at the words “family values” but I believe that knowing what my parents thought, felt, and believed played a huge role in shaping my own ideas – then and now. They taught me to give freely, not necessarily of things but of my time and talents, and to appreciate every single gift I was given no matter what. I learned very early on that gifting wasn’t about picking up some random last-minute item at Walmart. And it definitely wasn’t about your own expectations at all.

My grandmother in North Carolina lived off my deceased grandfather’s social security and the tiny bit of income she made selling eggs, pecans, and vegetables to her neighbors, yet every year she made sure all 7 of her children, their spouses, their children, and their children’s children had a Christmas gift – even if it was pair of socks. My parents could have taken these little trinkets and made light of them or perhaps even let me toss them aside in favor of my new Cabbage Patch Kid, but they didn’t. They made sure I knew the sacrifice that my grandmother made and what it meant to her to give this gift to me. More importantly, they did it in such a fun and thoughtful way that I came away with a lifelong appreciation of the effort – not the object – being gifted.

And I think that’s what bothers me most about gifting today. Somewhere along the way, things changed. Parents stopped teaching their children to value the effort and allowed them to focus instead on the object. Children are allowed not just to request what they want for gifts but to expect those things will be given to them and worse, to react poorly when they don’t get what they expected. We call this behavior a “sense of entitlement” but children aren’t born with expectations. We teach that to them and inevitably they grow into adults who still expect to receive everything they want and continue to react poorly when they don’t.

I’ve seen different versions of this behavior everywhere that I have lived but here in the South it seems far more extreme. Gifting is a priority and not to gift somehow means that you are not meeting your responsibilities. There’s this unspoken expectation of gifting that extends beyond just proper etiquette and there’s almost always no appreciation for the giver or the gift. Here are a few examples:

  • A friend of mine’s mother gave her a list of acceptable gifts she wanted for Mother’s Day.
  • One of the families we help from time to time with groceries, skipped paying their cable bill in order to buy Easter gifts for their infant child because they didn’t want to disappoint her or their own parents.
  • A woman I grew up with recently told me that she takes out loans every holiday – from Valentine’s Day to Christmas – to make sure her kids get everything they want. This same woman also said that she once signed her children up for charity gifts (ie. Angel Tree) even though she had already spent more than $600 on gifts herself.
  • My friend’s 14-year-old grandson will not come visit her unless she buys him a video game. (She created this expectation by bribing him as a child to do things he should have been doing in the first place – like taking a bath or brushing his teeth.)
  • A Facebook friend of ours bought his daughter a Lexus for graduation because it was what she was used to and she just “couldn’t drive anything else”.
  • We were recently invited to a graduation party by a friend of a friend. Since we did not know the graduate, we declined, and were promptly told that we could just give money instead.
  • Similarly, another friend said that she was expected to buy a birthday gift for her grandson’s girlfriend’s son even though she was not invited to the party. They even told her what to get.
  • And yet another friend of ours gave her step-granddaughter $50 for Christmas. The granddaughter left the money behind after saying, “What can you buy with $50 anyway?

These are just a few of the things Angie and I came up with when chatting about this over lunch today. There have been a lot more behaviors that we’ve simply observed – like the long lines for layaway every year at Walmart, the parents who give in rather than hear their kid throw a fit for a toy, or the sheer number of payday loan places in our small town (there are 14 by the way). I’m sure these things happen everywhere, but like I said before, it seems way more prevalent and brazen here than anywhere we’ve ever lived. And it’s really sad.

Gift giving should be a thoughtful, fun, and light-hearted experience. It should never been a stressful or forced occasion. To get there though, we need to loose the expectations – both as a giver and as a receiver. Minimalism has taught us much; the best of which might be this: the best things in life just can’t be bought.