catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 21 :: 2007.11.16 — 2007.11.30


How to give great gifts

It might be more blessed to give than to receive, but maybe that's because it's so much trickier.

I will gift you with an extensive list of my do’s and don'ts for surefire giving, but first let me give you a little history to explain my qualifications to lecture others on the finer points of generosity. It's a history of receiving a bunch of terrible gifts.

Having recently had a baby, I am the current recipient of many presents (or, my five-month-old son is, but I'm the one writing the thank you notes). Some of them have been excellent, the sort of thing you would have picked out for yourself if you'd had the idea and the money, but so many of them have been—well, less than thrilling.

It got me to thinking about how gift giving and receiving in general has become more disappointing the further I move from childhood. It wasn't like I didn't get lame-o gifts as a kid (socks, really? a new turtleneck? gee, thanks), but I wasn't yet jaded enough not to anticipate and hope for something spectacular. Every once in awhile, Santa or whoever came through: a Cabbage Patch Kid the year all my friends got the same, or a stereo system in junior high when I was just learning about that new-fangled technology called CDs.

I've realized that now, when someone gives me a gift, instead of expecting delight under the wrapping paper, I brace myself to be polite and not immediately figure out how I'm going to return or re-gift the item.

In the fog of sleep deprivation following the birth of an infant, it was especially grueling to have to write so many thank-you notes when I was feeling so unthankful. I realize that I may have my own gratitude issues to work on, and it's the thought that counts and all that, but I really did feel overwhelmed by how much I received that was not what I was hoping for and that I now had to appreciate in an overt way, find storage for, and decide the long-term fate of.

For many items, I wasn't feeling like I had received gifts so much as burdens.

I think part of my problem is that I'm a reforming packrat who develops emotional attachments to things very easily, too easily. If someone I like gives me something, I feel obligated to use it, and even to like it, or else I feel I'm not being loving toward the giver. Another issue is that, as a middle-class American adult, I can generally afford to buy anything I might need and most of what I really want (I say this at the risk of sounding super rich, when it's really just that I have low standards), so gifts tend to be superfluous add-ons that don't really enhance my life.

There are the rare occasions when someone who knows you well surprises you with the perfect gift that you would have bought had you known it existed. Most people, though, don't know their friends and relatives that intimately, either by choice or by circumstance, so they stumble around giving gifts that they would like to receive instead. So many gifts seem to be a statement from the giver: You should like this music. I think you'd look better wearing these clothes. This style of decoration would be more attractive than what you've chosen. I'm continually amazed at how resistant people are to giving recipients what they ask for or would actually enjoy. My least favorite gifts are the ones that are solely for the pleasure of the giver, gifts that make me want to turn around and say, "Oh, I'm sorry, did you want this back?"

But, despite complaining so well and so loudly, I have decided to stop for a moment and turn my experience to the positive. I will use my gift-receiving experience as inspiration to treat my own friends and family well when it's my turn to give gifts or support.

Here are the ideas I've come up with. Read on, and may you always be a good giver. Because, really, if you're going to be blessed, it might as well be for something good.

By the way, if you gave me something recently, I loved it. And I'm not just saying that.

Great Gift Giving Tips

  • This is how to solve the biggest problem of gift giving: giving something you like instead of what someone else needs or wants. If someone has taken the trouble to build a registry, go ahead and use it, assuming something's in your price range. They're actually telling you what they want—what could be more foolproof? In the same vein, if you hear directly or through the grapevine of a specific request that's in your power to grant, why not go with that? It might not be to your taste or what you would buy for yourself, but that's the whole point of gift giving—to give what the other person wants. I have created two registries in my life, one for my wedding and one for the birth of this baby. I did so because other people asked me, "Hey, where did you register?" and I assumed (naively the first time and skeptically the second) that they might buy me something off my registry. No, didn't happen. Look, give a girl a break—if she went to all the trouble to make a list, don't leave her hanging. We registered for blue towels for our wedding. We got pink towels, yellow towels, and white towels. We had to go out and buy our blue towels ourselves. Seriously, why would you see blue towels on a registry and deliberately buy a different color? It reminds me of all the wish lists I made as a kid about which my parents would say, "Oh, how nice," and then turn around and get me socks. Those were definitely NOT on my list.
  • On that note, things not to give: I know someone's going to disagree with me, but I'm sticking by this tenet. Don't give adults clothing or decorative items, unless you're very, very sure of their size and aesthetics. As a substitute for clothing, try jewelry for women (inexpensive but charming earrings or bracelets) or a gift certificate for either sex, and if you must give a decoration, make it a high-quality, functional one that someone's missing or would appreciate. I know I would take a nice flower pot, for instance.
  • Books, music, and movies can be nice gifts, if you take the recipients' taste into account. Otherwise, this is another way of assigning someone an obligation. We all have lists and piles of books and CDs  and DVDs we really mean to get to someday or really wish we liked but don't, and you don't need to add to that.
  • Go with consumables, anything that doesn't have to be assembled or dusted or stored. Think of interesting and delicious candies, fruits and spreads (try local farmer's markets for unique finds, or pick up unusual treats when you travel), or of something else easily and quickly used up: an enticingly scented liquid soap for a guest bathroom or a puzzle magazine for a mind that likes to be boggled. New parents especially will enjoy any food they don't have to prepare themselves. For them, keep two things in mind: It must be able to be eaten at room temperature (which is what it will be by the time they finally get around to settling the baby long enough to eat it) and it must be finger-food-oriented (because juggling a newborn is hard enough without throwing cutlery into the mix). Try cut-up veggies and dip, pico de gallo and chips, melon platters, cheeses and crackers, or hummus and pita slices.
  • Give an experience. This is another great way to keep down the clutter and enhance someone's life (and possibly your own) at the same time. Invite the birthday boy out for dinner, surprise your spouse with a romantic anniversary picnic, take a dear friend to a favorite museum or coffeehouse concert, outfit a movie lover with theater tickets, offer to finance a fun adult-education class in watercolors or cooking at a community college, or give the grandkids a year-long family pass to the aquarium, zoo, or pool.
  • You know that stupid saying, "No presents but your presence"? It actually can be an ideal gift. New parents, for instance, often feel isolated and would love a chance to go out to eat or over to someone else's place. If you're really close, you can even invite yourself over to their home. People without families nearby such as college students might enjoy a home-cooked meal, particularly for a holiday. If you're one of the people without family around, round up a group of friends in the same boat.
  • Give a service. This is one of my favorites, because it has three distinct benefits: it's used up immediately, it accomplishes a task, and it gives the unparalleled gift of time. I think these are especially great for new parents, because baby blankets and tiny clothes and stuffed animals are soooo fun to give, but that's why you can rely on others to fill the gap. Other options are so much more unique and welcome. Now, of course, anyone enjoys being coddled, so most of these can be adapted to loved ones in any stage of life, and I could see them being equally helpful to someone recovering from surgery or caring for an elderly relative. But there doesn't have to be an excuse—services are wonderful for making people feel extravagantly cared for. Most people will be too embarrassed or thrifty to bother spending money on services for themselves, but they'll love feeling like royalty once they experience it.

    Here are some options:

    • diaper service for new babies, if a family is planning on or interested in cloth diapers—a dear friend bought us our first month, and we were hooked
    • yard service (if they have a lawn or garden to care for—my poor neglected plants this summer after our munchkin was born!)
    • grocery delivery (wrestling a newborn into and out of a car seat to run basic errands is not a joy for anyone)
    • meal delivery (some areas will have ready-to-heat meals available for home delivery, often with organic and vegetarian options—or, of course, there's always pizza and Chinese food!)
    • an hour-long massage to soothe sore muscles and turn the recipient into grateful Jell-O
    • a manicure or pedicure for a weary (or unkempt…) friend—a bonus is that you can go along and receive the same relaxation!
    • a wardrobe or organizational consultant to refine clothing choices or clean up a home office or closet (but only if you know the recipient won't be offended)—it's like being on a reality show but without the embarrassment of cameras witnessing your shame
    • maid service (oh, the bliss of a clean house without lifting a finger)
    • laundry service (some areas will have companies or individuals who will pick up, wash, dry, fold, and return regular laundry within a day or two—ask me how I know this: I'm reveling right now in the April-fresh scent of clean laundry I didn't have to do)
    • babysitting or mother's helpers for new parents with older children or any parents who want to get out for a night or get something done at home
    • dog walking to pamper a pet who could use some attention

    Check for any of these services online (do a Google search and check the ads along the sides of the results pages, or go to Craigslist for your area) or in the yellow pages, or ask around and check bulletin boards. Usually the businesses will offer a gift certificate or pre-pay option for gift givers: You can either schedule the service and pay in advance, or you can pay a certain amount and let the recipients actually arrange the service, whichever you think will be more convenient for them. A bonus is that the services are often locally-owned and ecologically responsible. By giving a service, you'll usually be supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses. Don't be put off by the perceived price until you check for yourself—often a one-time or one-month service fee would be comparable to what you would have paid on a physical gift. If the cost is too steep, you can always fulfill the service yourself: offer to cook a favorite meal or wash a load of dishes. Our baby's beloved Aunt Sharon has given her nephew nary a onesie, but she has given the gift of helpfulness. She cheerfully ran errands for us in those first few unmanageable weeks, and she's always available to hold and entertain the baby while I do something extravagant for myself like take a shower.

  • For older children, go for simplicity and quality. Parents generally do not appreciate loud, whirring, shrieking, beeping plastic toys. I'm not saying children don't like them, because often they do (boy, do they!), but parents will love it if you try a little harder and find something tasteful and wooden that doesn't take batteries. Or, for another quiet but well-appreciated gift, give a book, puzzle, or board game.

  • Likewise for adults, quality and taste are always appreciated. A gift that's handmade (whether by yourself or an artisan) is nearly always a unique and lovely gift and admired more than a cookie-cutter chain-store buy. If you're not crafty but do have some other talent, put it to use. In the same way that your construction-paper-and-crayon creations were prized by your parents in grade school, your relatives will enjoy receiving a poem you wrote just for them, or a lovely framed photograph you took that you thought they would like. If you're more mechanically minded, a homemade gift might turn into a service, such as tuning up a car or replacing countertops.

  • For people who really have no talent but want to give something they crafted themselves, try combining the homemade category with the experience idea and give a do-it-yourself experience. One of our favorite wedding gifts was a packed picnic basket of ritzy sample-size foods and a couple colorful plates and utensils, along with a bottle of champagne, corkscrew, and wine glasses. We've since stolen the idea to give other people a fun sendoff on their honeymoon. Another favorite gift of ours back in the days before digital cameras was a favorite photography how-to book, a couple rolls of quality film (both black-and-white and color so it seemed more indulgent), and a nice picture frame. Use your imagination, and create a ready-made experience for someone else.

  • I know it seems crass, but I'm going to say it anyway. Money is one of my favorite gifts, to give and to receive. Gift certificates class it up a little, but cold hard cash is even more convenient. If you don't mind offending Miss Manners' dear beating heart, ante up and let the recipient decide on the gift.

  • I never know what people think of this, but you can give a charitable contribution in someone else's name. It helps if the person you're giving this gift to is someone who you know supports the cause and organization you're donating to.

  • Declare a spending limit. If it's someone you know well, you can make a game of spending as little as possible. Starting at the first Christmas of our married life, my husband and I began a tradition of allowing ourselves to spend $10 on each other. We plant ourselves in a mall or Target or thrift store and then take off in opposite directions, looking for cheap and goofy goodies. We always have the option of spending our budget all in one whack on one precious $10 item, but we unfailingly choose the fun route of getting a bunch of little gifts that can be wrapped and opened separately. They are entirely pointless gifts, chosen only to amuse, but they achieve that purpose. Reindeer-poop bubble bath, anyone?

  • Give something recycled. As long as you iron this out beforehand, allow yourself and your friends to pass on formerly beloved treasures or secondhand finds. That way, if the gift doesn't fit, you'll know it will feel right at home back at the thrift store.

  • Stop giving gifts. Not to be a Scrooge, but it is possible for a group of people to get together and declare a moratorium on gift giving. You might find that your out-of-town siblings or friends from work were just waiting for someone to say out loud what everyone else was thinking—gift giving is a chore and an unneeded expense when you don't know people well enough to pick out something they'd really appreciate. You might find your group breathing a collective sigh of relief. Bah! humbug, indeed. You can still pick up something special on any old occasion if the perfect gift catches your eye—it will be even more of a surprise and more appreciated when the recipient realizes that it wasn't a gift of obligation but was an inspiration stemming from pleasant thoughts of that person. For instance, my husband wrote for years about movies and spirituality and how the two intersect. On one birthday, his best friend gave him a book about theological themes in the Star Wars movies. He couldn't believe it—his friend had taken the time to notice him, had seen his interests, and had responded. To this day, that is one of his favorite gifts.

  • I realize that what's missing from this list is how to give to your own children, because it's not something I've had to deal with yet. My baby's first Christmas will be next month, and I'm expecting he won't notice at six months old. I wonder if the system my husband and I have come up with might work with children, although I know I'm not qualified to assert anything. In addition to our goofy $10 spree, we take whatever fun things we buy ourselves (since we know better than anyone what we need or like) in the month or so before Christmas and save them up to open on the day. These can be anything we don't immediately need, like a new shirt or a cool lipgloss or a DVD we ordered or, yes, socks too, now that I can appreciate them. We put them away in separate piles, and once we get our tree, we wrap the other person's presents to array under it. By the time Christmas morning rolls around, we've mostly forgotten what we bought ourselves, so there's still the fun of unwrapping gifts and the element of slight surprise, and the good news is that we actually like every single present we open. This might sound cynical, but it beats having your wish list ignored.

  • Finally, know what the obligations of gift giver and recipient are. The recipient's obligation is to thank the giver, but the giver can give people a break and not pester or hint around for thank-you notes. For new parents, for instance, I think there should be general thank-you note amnesty until the baby isn't breastfeeding every 10 minutes. Once the giver has been thanked, the subject of the gift is off limits unless the recipient brings it up. There's no asking to see the outfit on, no asking if the recipient enjoyed the CD or displayed the trinket—you have given that gift away, and now it belongs to the other person. Let it go. Don't scan the recipient's shelves to see if the book you gave is on them, or check the person's eBay account to make sure it's not being resold. The only continuing obligation of the recipient is not to re-gift the item to the original giver (oopsie!) or to disparage the gift openly in a way that would get back to the giver. Merely write a whole article about all the terrible gifts you've received and what people should have given you instead. Hey, Mom, live and learn.

Happy giving!

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