Forced Materialism

Fewer people than normal (is there a “normal” after only three?) asked what to get Samuel for his birthday this year – perhaps they all asked Olyvia and she didn’t mention it, or perhaps people know him better, or perhaps it’s just easier to buy for a three-year-old.  My stock response (which I tried, fairly successfully, to get Olyvia to use as well) was as follows (this didn’t apply to parents or grandparents):

Sam has so many toys that he just doesn’t have time to play with everything.  He has toys in his toy box that he hasn’t even played with yet.  He really doesn’t need any more at the moment.  He also has heaps of books and clothes.  If you want to buy him a present, then you are, of course, welcome to do so.  In that case, our suggestions are:

* Make him something.  He’s a bit of a fussy eater these days, unfortunately, so food might not be a good choice.  If you can think of something else to make, then that would fine.
* Something to do.  e.g. an IOU for a trip with you to somewhere. This could be as simple as a picnic at a park somewhere – he loves being outside.
* A donation to a charity and a card (he likes opening mail) saying what you did.  He’s not going to understand it now, but when he’s older, he’ll hopefully think that was really cool, and right now he already has so much stuff.

My hope was really for the latter – we actually do quite a few things already, so there isn’t a pressing need for the middle choice.  Making him something is great, but it seemed unlikely to appeal to many givers.  We did actually try this once before – suggesting a donation to a charity (Starship, I think) as a Christening present.  If I recall correctly, we didn’t get a single bite that time.

Samuel’s party was yesterday, and he had something like 50 people attend (perhaps 25 groups, e.g. families).  I know there are a few more presents coming, but the bulk will have been dealt with so far.  It wasn’t a total win, but we did have two or three people that chose to do a donation, which really pleases me (and I hope will please Samuel when he’s old enough to understand).  We also have a lot of stuff that I’m (of course) really grateful that people bought for Sam, but will hardly (if at all) get played with and will end up just getting donated somewhere.  On the “something to do” side, he did get supplies for baking (which he loves) and gardening (which he might get interested in) – not exactly what I had in mind, but good gift choices in my mind.  There were home-made cards and wrapping paper, but I don’t recall any home-made gifts.  He also got three gifts of cash – Olyvia and I had planned to top up his savings to reach the next milestone, so we did that after adding the other gifts and made an equivalent donation for him.

I wish I knew why people are so reluctant to choose the charity option.  The comment I hear most often (via Olyvia) is something disparaging about me and how I’m a killjoy, or don’t want Samuel to have fun.  This is ludicrous – half of the problem is that Olyvia and I (along with others, like his grandparents) spoil him so much that he already has so many things.  I also know what he likes – at the moment he likes opening cards just as much as presents, and he doesn’t like getting overwhelmed (which opening the flood of presents at his party was, although he managed well).  It’s also my (and Olyvia’s) job to consider his future happiness – I’d love it if he grew up happy and having the things that he wanted, but also without a need to have more things all the time.  This is a step along that road.

The other frequent comment is something along the lines of how Samuel would want to open a present and see something.  That’s true – but he enjoys opening cards just as much as a gift – so a card that went along with a donation (or something to do, or something homemade) would be just as much fun for him as another toy.  Olyvia noted something that I think is probably quite true – it’s also often that the giver wants to see a reaction from Samuel when he opens the present, and they think that a toy will provoke a better reaction than a card.  Although I understand this, I think it’s more important to consider what’s best for the receiver than for the giver.

Unfortunately, this is probably the last time that we’ll be able to try this experiment for some time.  Christmas is a much smaller event, where this isn’t as big an issue.  For Sam’s 4th birthday, he probably will be old enough that he will care what’s in the box, and not react as positively if it’s homemade/an activity/a donation.  My aim is for the party next year to be vastly scaled down, too (probably cutting out many of the parents, and also people that are really friends of mine/Olyvia’s, rather than Samuel’s), and this isn’t much of an issue with half-a-dozen gifts.

On a tangentially-related note: we did manage to get through his party without gift-bags or organised party games, which I’m quite pleased about.  (I’m sure games will be featured next year, by which time Sam will probably really enjoy them).

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