In the weeks leading up to Christmas and Hanukkah this year I thought a lot about whether we were overdoing it for Zoe. And, if we were, if excessive gift-giving was going to turn Zoe into the most dreaded of all childhood creatures: a spoiled brat.
There is an intense gift-giving tradition in my family. And I understand where it comes from. When my mom was growing up, her parents, though very loving, did not have a lot of spare cash and they were not extravagant people. My mom and her siblings received a lot of practical gifts and there was one Christmas after which (I apologize if I’m not getting the story completely right, but I’m confident that the idea is accurate) my mom had to sacrifice the new doll she had received to donate to an orphan of a far-away war. And my mom, unlike my child, did not have a whole family of dolls waiting in the wings. She probably just had the one.
So as a result, when my mom grew up and started earning enough money to give nice presents, that’s exactly what she did. And when my sister and I were born, my mom wanted to make sure we were lavished with the kind of generosity and plenty that she didn’t experience as a child. It makes sense.
Add into the mix that my dad is Jewish so we also grew up celebrating Hanukkah and we received that many more presents come December.
So it also makes sense (I think) that I wanted to replicate for Zoe the amazing holiday celebrations I enjoyed as a child, and the wonder of Santa and the generous spirit of the season. But Zoe has something that I did not, which is my mom as a grandparent, as well as two more sets of generous grandparents and many aunts and uncles who also love to shower her with gifts. Obviously I am thankful that Zoe has all these people in her life (and the people are clearly more important than what they give her materially). But all this makes for a lot of gifts and a lot of stuff.
I am not going to attempt to stop anyone from giving Zoe presents. It wouldn’t be kind or fair. I understand the joy of choosing a present for someone you love, and it’s especially easy to find presents for a girl such as Zoe who is fascinated by so much in the world. But at the same time I have to find a way to keep my child and my house from being completely overwhelmed by possessions. I understand the dangers from my own experience of not taking good care of your stuff or losing important things because you have so much you can’t keep track of it. I don’t want her to think, “oh, I can just throw this doll into the mud because I have another dozen waiting for me at home.”
I also want Zoe to understand how lucky she is to have what she has. Every year before Christmas and before her birthday we go through her toys and find things to get rid of. There’s plenty of stuff she doesn’t play with that often. If there are things she’s outgrown that we really really really love, we can keep them for our future hypothetical baby. Other things we give away. This year we filled a giant trash bag with little toys that we gave to a friend who is a teacher and she gives them as prizes to her students. We filled a giant box with stuffed animals to send to kids who have been through natural disasters or other tragedies and could use someone to hug. We brought new toys to one of my clients that was collecting them for families in its programs to “buy” for their kids. I brought Zoe with me downtown to drop them off, explaining how some kids don’t have any or many toys and we were giving some nice ones to those kids so they could enjoy them at Christmas. We brought books to the book drive at school and toys to the toy drive at school. I have never been known for subtlety.
So sometime during this season Zoe was playing toy store. She was pretending to be the owner of a toy store she had created by setting up a scene with her tiny toys at the dining room table. She had the little creatures coming in to buy toys for their even littler creature children. And she said one reason she liked being a toy shop owner was that every Sunday she gave away toys for free to kids and families who didn’t have any. I was glad to know my message had been received.
In the same vein, we spent the afternoon at the National Building Museum one day this week. In the Building Zone, a special area for young kids to play, Zoe donned safety goggles and an orange construction vest and set to work building a house out of faux bricks. She announced that it was a house for a family that didn’t have one. I guess we’d been talking about Habitat for Humanity. I helped her build the house. It also featured a place where police, animals, and postal workers could go.
As long as we have generous family members (which I hope will be forever) Zoe will get a lot of presents. I don’t want her to think she’s entitled or take all this great stuff for granted. But I think as long as I have anything to do with it, she will also understand how important it is to give and to share what she has. I think that’s the best I can do.