Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Art of Giving

When I was 17, my mom turned 40. I had just recently graduated from high school, and I was earning money from a summer job. I thought about a gift for her and decided on a book I liked, Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She was polite and thanked me for it, but I doubt she ever read it.

This is no slam on her. It's all on me. In this case, it truly was the thought that counted. My mom is a reader, but this book of essays by a writer I admired is not her cup of tea. I had violated a rule about the giving of gifts. I had not bought the book with her in mind. I had bought it with me in mind. I had a vague idea that my mom would read the book, and we'd have discussions about it. In other words, I wanted her to give me something, her time, her thoughts, her attention. Any gift I gave should have reflected that the occasion of a milestone birthday was all about her.

I am not alone in my mistaken notion about what constitutes good gift-giving practice. I see it happen all the time. A well-meaning relative insists on giving you a piece of furniture, when what you really need and want is help paying your child's college tuition. Or a new sweater, or almost anything else.

On a larger scale, some presidential candidates say they'd give low-income families tax breaks, when what they really need are better jobs, child care, schools, transportation and health care. 

To be a good gift giver, first of all take what you want completely out of it. Instead, pay attention to what interests the recipient, and what they love. When in doubt, ask them what they need and want. These, and your own love, will guide you to finding a gift that suits them.

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