What to give, when to give, how to give—or whether to give at all
My mother is the perfect Bubby. Although my children are growing up 6,000 miles away from her, she never fails to express her love to them, whether through little gifts she sends, attention she doles out over the phone, and, of course, their wardrobe (which makes her a great Mom too!).
And so, I wasn’t surprised when a full two months before Chanukah my mother told me of the gift she was thinking of bringing my kids on her upcoming Chanukah trip: an adult-like digital camera, especially fashioned for kid use. When my mother told me of the great reviews she heard on the product and of its many incredible features such as a video playback option, I thought long and hard.
I didn’t want to hurt my mother, but I knew she would understand. And then, I told her the truth—I was grateful to her for thinking of us, but we would appreciate if she could bring something simpler. You see, for various reasons, my husband and I would prefer that our children (all under the age of seven) don’t entertain themselves through technology. While a junior digital camera may be a wonderful gift in one family, that may not be the case in another.
When it comes to gifts from parents to children, especially Chanukah gifts, ask two Jews what they think and you get three opinions.
Is a sophisticated camera an appropriate gift for a six-year-old? It depends.
Is giving Chanukah gifts at all, for that matter, appropriate? That depends too.
These are just two of the many questions that fall on the value spectrum. For some people, it’s a definite no-no. For others, it’s the ideal choice. As in many areas of parenting, gifting essentially boils down to values.
Is it up to parents to establish the values of their home? For starters, the only irrefutable set of values is the Torah. If something is clearly forbidden, it’s out. Then there’s another category of values: personal principles. We as parents are entitled to have our own set of values. Perhaps this is something our parents lived be and we would like to perpetuate the legacy. Perhaps we see a certain practice or concept as too forward, too glamorous, too much. And that’s perfectly okay. In fact, it’s healthy for children to see that their parents live within a value-based boundary system.
But what happens when the things our children request or do are incompatible with those principles? Are the values we parents establish enough of a valid reason for us to withhold something from our child? This is where the difference between needs and wants comes into play. In all chinuch matters, the focus is always the child. It’s beautiful and commendable for parents to have certain values and to stick to them no matter what, but what happens when they coincide with the needs or wants of our children? Who comes first? To answer this, we must be honest with ourselves. With true love, we’re able to dissect a matter with total honesty.
Once we ruled out that what the child wants is not against the Torah (in order to avoid bias, it’s advisable for a third party to do this), the question now becomes whether their request is a need or a want. As parents, we are obligated to provide our child’s needs, not wants, so this is an important distinction. What constitutes a need? If the child’s physical, social, or emotional wellbeing is dependent on this request, it becomes a need. Just as a parent would extend herself backward and forego on personal principles in order to provide her child’s physical needs, the same holds true for his other needs as well.
According to parenting expert Rebbetzin Spetner, a want becomes a need if 80% of the child’s peer group has that particular item or engages in that particular practice. Whether it’s getting Chanukah gifts, going to the mall, or buying a particular brand of shoes which the parent may find extravagant or even ludicrous, as long as it’s not explicitly against the Torah, this request now constitutes a need. (If you ask Rebbetzin Spetner what to do if 80% of your community consistently engages in practices that clash with your values, she would say that you have two choices: to adapt to the community or move out of it.)
While the process sounds complicated, it boils down to this: If what my child is asking for is not against the Torah, is this a need or a want for her? If it’s a want, it’s up to me to decide if it’s in line with my values. If it’s a need, it becomes a must for me, as the parent, to fulfill it.
Before withholding something from our children due to our own set of values, a good question to ask ourselves is: what am I giving up for what? Looking past our personal values to provide a need for our child is the ultimate expression of love. We may be losing the battle, but we’re essentially winning the war.
Going back to the digital camera our kids will not be getting this Chanukah, since it’s not in line with our values and is not currently a need for our children (most of their peers wouldn’t know what to make of it!), they’ll have a fine and dandy Chanukah with a new matching game or art set. If the camera would fill an emotional, physical, or spiritual need for them, that would not be the case.
And speaking of gifts, here’s the greatest gift we can give our children this Chanukah, whether we buy them material presents or not: love. Love comes in hugs and kisses, in song and laughter, in acceptance and marital peace. We give it to our children when we forgive them and our spouse for their mistakes, when we’re patient as they learn, when we give them their space to grow and develop into the unique individuals they were destined to be. Children who are bombarded with material gifts but live in a home devoid of love and serenity grow up with a deep void in their heart. But children who grow up enveloped in love? Give them anything and their eyes will glow—today and always.