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Originally published Sunday, August 19, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Back-to-school gifts? Really?

The Parent 'Hood: A look at the problems tied to a back-to-school gift.

Chicago Tribune

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Apparently, this is what people who don't actually have real problems worry about --... MORE

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Your daughter's friends get back-to-school gifts from their parents. Can you resist this trend without guilt?

Parent advice (from our panel of staff contributors):

Yes, with pleasure. Going back to a good school where friends and great experiences abound is gift enough. Plus, I think we are on gift/treat overload with our kids. It's not a gift or treat if it's a habit and it robs them of the feeling of pleasure at receiving them. Which is not a gift at all.

— Wendy Donahue

Going back to school can be really stressful for kids, which manifests itself in crankiness, self-doubt and fatigue. Summer is over, they're wearing uncomfortable, uncool clothes, and they're loaded down with a ton of books and supplies and massive expectations. If there ever was a time to help her chill out, this is it. So instead of material gifts, help her get though the next couple of weeks as stress-free as possible. Favorite dinners, family movie nights, games, walks, whatever she likes to do to relax. Also, give her some space and take it easy on the discipline, if possible, until she gets in a groove and feels like things are going OK. I think she'd appreciate those things more than anything bedazzled.

— Michael Zajakowski

Expert advice:

A back-to-school gift is likely purchased for one of two reasons: to console a child on summer ending or to express pride and joy at the entry into a new grade. They're both problematic, says clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee" (Scribner).

"External reward reduces intrinsic motivation," she says. "It communicates to the student that the parent might feel a little bad about the student going back to school, which is actually the student's job, (and) that there's some bribery needed, instead of a matter-of-fact, direct, robust transition from the delight of summer to the opportunity for learning and fellowship" that comes with school.

This apology of sorts also transfers kids' healthy share of responsibilities to the shoulders of their parents. "In trying to sweeten the deal for kids, we actually communicate to them we feel that certain very ordinary responsibilities are kind of hardships," Mogel says. "Then kids think, 'It's not my homework, it's yours. It's not my problem with this less-than-doting teacher, it's yours. It's not my problem with this group of kids, it's yours."

If the gift is presented in a celebratory vein, it sets up a different set of challenges.

"We get in this cycle of graduations with a cap and gown from kindergarten and celebrations for graduating middle school and what happens when you win the Nobel Prize?" Mogel laughs. "Everything is a comedown from how much celebrating we've been doing. Yes, you're going into third grade. That's what happens after second grade."

When you find the resolve to take a pass, guilt-free, on this trend, prepare for the inevitable, "But McKenna's mom and dad ..." to which you can reply: "We can afford all kinds of things and there are all kinds of other things we can't afford. Some of your friends' families have different-size budgets or different values. I know it's hard when you see your friends getting that third American Girl doll, but if you're still longing for one in a few months, that would be a great birthday present to ask for," she suggests.

"Longing and waiting give anything you get much more weight and satisfaction than a cheap array of whatever you want whenever you want it. If you go with the tide of the culture, you will overprotect and overindulge and overschedule your child."

Or, she says, "you find the courage to resist the temptation to buy that back-to-school gift."

Have a solution? Your dinner table has become oddly silent. How can you get your family talking again? Email us at parenthood@tribune.com.

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