Re-thinking “Gifts” and “Giving” by Susan Perrow

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Rethinking “Gifts” and “Giving”
An Article for Families by Susan Perrow (2010)
Originally published in Kindling magazine. Kindly reprinted here with permission from the author.
Susan’s website is Healing Through Stories

In the yearly cycle of family life there can be many occasions for giving and receiving gifts – birthdays, cultural and religious festivals, house-warmings, welcomes and farewells, celebration of a special achievement, and other in-family rituals.

This article challenges the modern parent to rethink how to celebrate such occasions with simple and creative ideas for gifts – gift ideas that, like a healthy dish of food, can nourish our body and soul and not just link into a western materialistic culture and feed a greedy commercial world (that rarely has the well being of children as their priority).

Finding ways to simplify gifts
In my years as a single parent of three boys I was living on a tight budget and learning to make the dollar stretch to the end of the road and back. However, finding ways to simplify gifts and break away from the current consumer culture was not just a budgetary decision. It was a conscious step in rebelling from the expected materialistic norm.

Surprisingly it was not as difficult as I had first imagined. When my oldest son lost his first tooth, the current tradition as practised by families in our neighbourhood was to replace the tooth with a coin ($1 or $2 – a lot of money in the early eighties!). I thought about this and the materialistic basis to such a tradition (and the cost of many teeth lost by three boys over the next few years!) and decided to try something simpler. Instead of a gold coin left by the ‘tooth fairies’ a tiny little shell was left out instead. The comment made by my excited six-year old boy in the early hours of the morning still rings in my ears – “I knew the real tooth fairies wouldn’t leave money!”

With this seal of approval by an innocent child, a simple family tradition commenced – for each tooth lost a natural treasure was left in its place (a shell, crystal, feather, etc). With the seventh tooth (arbitrarily chosen – a stopping point was needed eventually!) a special treasure box was left out with a note suggesting its use as a home for the accumulated treasures. Many years later and these little boxes, with their simple contents, are still kept by the boys as a treasured memory.

Creative and unusual gift ideas

When the boys and I shared the first Christmas together in our newly purchased home (after living in more than ten rental properties in as many years), their main present was a box full of new trees for the garden (one box each). Although this was an unusual choice of gift, the summer holidays that followed had a special quality to them as each boy planted and cared for his collection of trees. They still remember this with great affection.

Several years later, the main Christmas present from myself to my two older boys involved a simple re-arrangement of the bedrooms in the house. They had out-grown their small room and I decided to give up my attachment to enjoying the larger main bedroom! On Christmas Day they found a long tubular present under the tree – it was the plans of the house showing the new bedroom arrangements! What a grand surprise this was for them, and as I should have predicted, our special day was spent moving furniture from one room to another! Not one comment was made about this not being a ‘good enough’ present – the boys were ecstatic with the idea. The new gift of ‘space’ then allowed many creative possibilities through the holidays as they experimented with and arranged (and rearranged) their beds, desks and special things.

I am now remarried and together my husband and I have six grown up children. To simplify the task of buying gifts for each one at Christmas (plus spouses and boyfriends/girlfriends) we have decided to choose ideas that help us all have fun together. One year everyone received water pistols and a cricket set (these toys encouraged an active but very cool Christmas day). The next year we all went on a morning snorkelling trip to an island off the Australian east coast, the next year a kayaking trip. We still have options of horse riding, or playing golf, or ten pin bowling??? – the possibilities are endless.

Involvement and Activity

Whether you create your own ideas for gifts or go shopping for gifts (fortunately there are some quality products on the market shelves), I suggest two over-riding principles of good gifts for children:

1. That they allow “involvement” by the child (i.e. that they are not just passive entertainment)

2. That they encourage “activity” (physical, imaginative and/or intellectual) – age appropriate of course.

The Joy of Giving

In The Good Gift Guide (Simon and Schuster, 1995, p.x)), Alison Pearl lists the first criteria for ‘good gifts’ as needing to

1. Be chosen ‘from the heart’ and

2. Bring joy to both giver and receiver.

This brings me to the less emphasised joy of gifts – the joy of giving! My fondest experience of this was when I was questioned by my boys in their mid primary school years as to the truth behind the existence of ‘Santa’. Without feeling I was being dishonest, I told them that Santa was like a ‘giving spirit’ who helped bring gifts to children when they were little. I explained that as they grew older it was their turn to become the ‘giving spirits’ and the image of Santa was no longer needed. My boys took this in quite deeply and as Christmas approached that year they threw themselves into the joy of making and wrapping little gifts for every family member they could think of (including distant cousins). This year was one of my favourite of all our family events –the emphasis had switched from ‘what am I getting’ to ‘what can I give and who can I give to’. I believe if we can strive for a balance between giving and receiving then this creates a healthy medium for families.

This shift of emphasis (from ‘givee’ to giver) also became a main theme at the preschool that I ran for twelve years in Byron Bay. For our Christmas festival the children would be so involved in making little gifts for their families (candles, packs of greeting cards, felt toys, tie-dyed treasure bags, etc) that they rarely thought about what they might be getting themselves. At Easter time, bulbs planted in little pots became our traditional autumn Easter gifts to take home. These helped to take the competition and focus away from how many chocolate eggs each child was expecting to receive from family and friends, or had already received two weeks before Easter!.

If you are trying to come up with gift ideas for pre-school age children to give to others, thinking laterally and simply produces many possibilities. Cleaning all the wedding shoes for the wedding party (from grandma to baby brother) was the proud wedding gift from a five-year old boy to his about-to-be-married mother and father. With the teacher’s supervision and help from his friends, he cleaned the shoes at the pre-school the day before the wedding. The important side benefit of this was that it helped to ‘focus’ his excitement, and helped him share with the pre-school community his special news – at the end of the day the 9 pairs of shoes were lined up on the shelf in the foyer for all to see!

It is surprising how simple a gift can be, and how readily children will accept such simplicity. At our autumn festival the children used to be so excited to sit and polish the apples – with each child feeling very satisfied and happy to take a shiny red apple home for a gift to his/her family.


Nowhere in the definition of a gift and in the tradition of gift-giving is a gift confined to being purchased from a shop. This article encourages you to think ‘beyond shops’ to new possibilities for gifts. It suggests a break away from the current ‘consumer culture’ that is so prevalent in all aspects of our lives today. It encourages an exploration of new choices for children (and adults), based on what you believe is ‘good’ for wholistic child development, and not led by what the commercial world thinks is ‘good’ for children.

Most of all it encourages you to explore the richness of SIMPLICITY.

Happy giving!

6 Responses to “Re-thinking “Gifts” and “Giving” by Susan Perrow”

  1. Donna

    great post – I love Susan Perrow. I loved her story telling workshop so much that I did it twice, she is amazing! p.s lets catch up soon dear friend x

  2. Toni D

    Hi Amber,
    Thanks for sharing this. A beautiful article! Like the articles that you have written on your blog regarding this time of year, I find it affirming of the choices we make to shake off the external commercial influences that would convince us we have need for so much. I have heard people say, even in the Steiner education circles, that gifting (suggesting handmade, natural material toys) is so expensive. It is refreshing to be reminded gifting can be of time, space and activity not just in the tangible, tactile playthings. I love your blog, It often makes my heart sing!

  3. Anonymous

    THANK YOU! Thank you! Thank you! I love the shoe cleaning one – I could really visualise that child.
    I love the focus on the joy, and ACTVITY.
    Thanks Susan!

  4. Amber Greene

    Thank you Lisa. I hope MM proves to be a useful resource. Donna, yes, lets catch up-its been ages!
    Toni-your felt is on its way and Felic- good to meet you.

  5. Anonymous

    Wow this is a great resource.. I’m enjoying it.. good article

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