It's gift-giving time, and I'm cranky about gift cards and pushy kids

It used to be so much fun to pick out the perfect gift. Now it seems kids just want the cash.

Published November 29, 2007 11:34AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I need a little help with perspective. I would like to get some philosophical guidance and your thoughts on gift giving.

It's not life-and-death stuff, but it has my stomach in knots as I do my Christmas shopping. It affects my relationship with family members and the fun of the holidays more every year.

I am getting really cranky about gift cards.

I have a large family, and we all have spouses and most have kids. Every year my parents and brothers and sisters and spouses draw names and have a moderate $75 limit for that one gift. The children do not draw names and receive gifts from every family. Now, it's hard to keep up with everyone's changing likes and dislikes and hobbies and interests, so for convenience and fun my mom has always had a big list on her fridge where we had individual lists of suggestions and wishes. We always had a good time adding outlandish things to each other's lists, and it also came in handy when I was stumped for my own husband or kids.

However, in recent years, many of the lists have deteriorated to a litany of gift cards from only the hottest stores. The latest trend, even more detestable to me, is to state what the person does not want! As in, "No tea or candles, or toys or dresses or sweaters -- pants, [blah-blah] designer only, please" or, "No books. Tiffany will never read them." Is this what the idea of gift giving in our time has become?

But maybe I'm the Scrooge. Am I the Scrooge, Cary? What is it that bothers me here? I mean, now I can just go down to the convenience store on the corner and do all my holiday shopping from one of those spinny things near the cash register -- all the different cards are there. Or better yet, why don't we just stop at the ATM on Christmas Day on our way to Mom and Dad's and exchange wads of cash?

I guess what I feel is robbed. I loved thinking of the perfect gift -- the one my sister would never get herself or the great surprise my brother hadn't even thought of ... I liked looking for clothes for my nieces in that locally owned store in the funky part of town ... buying a book for my nephew that my son loved as a boy ... I feel robbed of the feeling of giving. Some people will say, "Just do what you want, and still give in the way that you want to." But the giving is really tainted, knowing that what they'd really like is a plastic swipe card. The reaction I get is that the recipient is annoyed with my gift rather than pleased. It may seem frivolous, but it makes me really sad.

A number of years ago I read Miss Manners or Emily Post (or someone like that), who said that gifts should always be accepted graciously and enthusiastically. She even went so far as to say that returns and exchanges should be done only if they could be done discreetly and without the gift giver's knowledge. Incidentally, she was also in favor of regifting (once again discreetly). This feels right to me and SO FAR from where we're at in our consumer holiday traditions. What do you think?

Please help me find some perspective.

Maybe Scrooge

Dear Maybe Scrooge,

Say what you will about the decline of civility, kids adapt to the situation they find themselves in. Kids today, what situation do they find themselves in? They find themselves in an indescribably opulent, decadent, end-of-the-world orgy of cheap luxury goods. The threat they face is not that maybe they won't get what they want, but that they'll be buried under an avalanche of merchandise like the good people of Pompeii. What are they supposed to do about this?

Well, they develop their defensive capacities. They learn to discriminate among the objects. They learn the language that the postmodern brand maniacs are speaking to them, and they learn to speak it back. Amid a surfeit of middle-class consumer goods and a fragmented sensorium of image and sound never before seen on earth, they develop a preternatural radar for brand recognition. It's a survival adaptation. It's like they're in this postmodern Jurassic Park of predatory marketers running social-networking sites and gaming geniuses baiting their traps with neurological candy. What are they supposed to do? They didn't invent this world. They're not responsible. We are, you and I, actively or passively, with our acquiescence in this late capitalist supernova imperialist explosion, our cathode-ray image strafing of tender minds, our Facebook surveillance of inner space, our giant data-mining tractors running up and down their streets sucking up their every movie preference and snack preference, our "South Park" boot camp of social toughening scouring out any last sentimental vestiges of modernist depth-model identity.

We made this world. It is a pretty amazing world, with its weapons and pixels. It's an amazing killing machine; it's an amazing mechanism of domination and control; it is amazing in its surveillance capabilities and its persuasion techniques.

But to a kid it's got to be mainly a terrifying world.

They're programmed, like all other humans, to scan their environment, find the patterns, find the survival strategies and gather goods. So they have responded to their environment in an intelligent and reasonable way, by becoming discriminating shoppers. They scan merchandise with virtuosic speed and exactitude. They mentally sort, scan, sort, scan, discriminate, sort, prioritize, pick the next top model, the next American Idol.

Where, I ask you, are they supposed to find the values that you are talking about? Sure, parents can try to teach them these things. But kids look at their parents, and then they look at the world, and they go, What the fuck? They see the toys spewing out of the world's vast maws of plastic-mold technology, they see the microchips doubling in speed and know that in a year they will be faster and faster still, and tinier and tinier still, and more feature-rich too. They see the new dresses and the new videos, and they know they'll be changing faster than they can change their own clothes. And then they look at their parents, who seem to be moving in black-and-white slo-mo. How can they feel anything but pity and scorn? How can they have any confidence that their parents will even survive the acceleration? In fact it must frighten them that their parents seem so ill-adapted to the world that parents themselves have created.

And then we come along and we say, "I'm knitting you a sweater and I want you to be grateful for it." And they think, Are you out of your head? Are you nuts? Do you have any idea what's going on in the world?

Of course you do, and of course it terrifies you, too. You are only trying to hold onto something, some shred of the world as it used to be before it started spinning so fast.

I don't blame you. But these kids are the ones who are going to have to live in this world. So if they can find any comforting illusions in it, more power to them. And if they are a little rude and a little acquisitive and a little overattuned to the minute variations in brand identities, if they want only the cash, if they dismiss our offers of hand-knit sweaters and perfect picture books, well, I'd say they have bigger things to worry about. For instance, I didn't even mention this: We're handing down to them a planet that has been overheating lately and whose warranty has expired.

So if you want to get to know these kids better, I'd say let them take you shopping.

As for the future of the world, they're going to have to make it for themselves. God help them on that one.

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