Peripheral Gift-Giving
Thursday, 11 December 2008

Ok, so that’s probably not the most flattering title, but it’s the best I could come up with. Hopefully you know what I mean. I’m not talking about giving gifts to people you don’t really care about – those are gifts, to me, best left un-given, money and energy better directed elsewhere. But that’s a blog for another day.

No, when I talk about peripheral gift-giving, I mean all the people in your life that you want to recognize and honor in some small way, but that you may not know well enough to come up with a truly personal gift. I’m thinking of preschool teachers, Sunday school volunteers, soccer coaches or ballet teachers, even mothers you don’t know well in your large mom’s group. I’ve polled (very unscientifically) several friends of mine who are teachers, and found out what they like and what doesn’t work so well.

First up – gift cards. We always want to say “thank you” but hate to spend money on something they won’t like or will simply pass on to someone else. That’s probably why hands-down the gift I kept hearing mentioned was gift cards. Everyone I talked to said receiving a gift card with several possibilities is awesome. A gift card to somewhere like Target, for example, could be used to buy family groceries, school supplies for an out-of-budget art project, or a cute new t-shirt. One friend of mine doesn’t drink coffee but loved getting some homemade biscotti with a $10 gift-card to Starbucks, knowing she could use the card for tea or one of those frozen drinks or even, on a decadent day, some of that awesome hot chocolate. A small amount isn’t insulting, so don’t worry; any amount at all is appreciated.

And if you want to do a gift card plus something personal, it’s easy to get creative. For one thing, I mentioned that Starbucks card with the homemade biscotti, but you can go beyond that. I found these great reusable gift bags – they’re a hip, nylon bag rather than the typical paper gift bags, and people can use them for lunch bags, fruit, shopping errands, and more. Put a gift card in one of these bags and you’re giving two gifts in one! If you live near a Whole Foods store, I think they make great gift certificates because you can get groceries, jewelry, scented candles, makeup – the options are many and it all feels a little pampering because it’s an upscale, natural store.

Next, let’s talk about the food thing. I’ve had a mixed response on this, so know that up front. On the one hand, I’ve had teachers beg me to ask people not to give food – for one thing, they’re simply overloaded with sweets this time of year, and for another, they may not like what you’re making (yes, I know your chow-chow is famous, but not everyone likes it) and will feel bad throwing good food away.

On the other hand, if food is something you’re good at, my poll says go for it. One girlfriend got an awesome homemade salsa last year; another received a plate of amazing, home-decorated sugar cookies. If you make your own jelly, chances are you’ll have a hit on your hands.

Other great ideas include stationery (put stamps in there and she’ll like you even more) or even just a nice note telling the teacher what an impact she’s had on your child this year, a gift certificate for a free manicure at someplace near the school, coupons to a movie theatre, that sort of thing. Pampering without being too specific.

On the down side, here’s a partial list I got of least-favorite gifts: jewelry (hard to know your teacher’s taste, even harder to pin it down on your tiny budget), picture frames (you’d be surprised how many they get), ornaments for the tree (one teacher said she’s got enough for two trees now, just from students), and anything scented. I know we all love to give scented candles or lotions because they seem feminine and are easy to pick up, but if you don’t know this person well enough to give them a truly personal gift you probably don’t know them well enough to pick out their favorite scent. Sorry. I was also asked to include small decorative items on the least-favorite list – items like figurines or statues or somesuch. They do say “thinking of you”, and that’s nice, but I think the ten bucks on a Ben and Jerrys gift certificate will probably fit into their house décor better.

If you’ve given a teacher one of these gifts already this year, please don’t despair. Teachers are thrilled with any gift at all, and don’t “hate” any of them – they simply get overwhelmed sometimes with sheer volume this time of year, which is why I’m here to help you out.

And finally, think about doing a donation thing. I love a charity called World Vision, and they’ve got an amazing “gift catalog” for Christmas time. Thirty bucks will buy school supplies for an underprivileged child here in the U.S. for a whole school year; twenty bucks brings art and music education to children in countries like El Salvador or Romania. World Vision will send an awesome gift card explaining where the money’s going for you to pass on to the gift recipient, and the entire gift’s tax deductible. I’ve given these to many people over the years, and have seen people moved to tears over them. Just something to consider.

So hopefully now you feel a little bit better about the fact that school’s ending next week and you’re not quite prepared to say thank-you to the staff - just stop at a favorite store, pick up a few gift cards, and you're done.

As for everything else on that big to-do list of yours, you’re on your own.

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