It’s Not All Mary Poppins

If you don’t want to know, don’t ask

Tricky thing, gifts. Trickier still to give gifts to people to whom you want to show your genuine appreciation, but who you don’t really know all that personally. Parents run into those a lot: a particularly helpful teacher, a coach, a Brownie leader.

Your daycare provider.

Every person is different, of course, which only makes it more difficult. One person will complain about toiletries — “Can they not think of anything besides shower gel and soaps?” — while another truly loves a decadent, scented soak, and would wilt with gratitude at a nicely presented basket of Body Shop products, or even just one luscious tub of Body Butter. Really. Who couldn’t love that stuff? (In this scent, if anyone’s curious.)

You? You’d rather have a nice pair of bamboo knitting needles? Or a gift certificate to a restaurant? Or an oh-so-versatile cheque?

There is no right answer, of course. Everyone has their preferences — and you know what? It would be really nice if the gift recipients understood that. I can’t think of the number of times I’ve listened to caregivers complain about gifts they’ve received. That whole toiletries thing, for example. She wasn’t just complaining about the sheer volume of soap she was accumulating. When you tend to groups of people, many of whom give you a gift, things can quickly get out of hand. The year I taught kindergarten, by the end of the school year I had seventeen cans of scented Avon talcs. Now I have nothing against Avon, and nothing against talc, but SEVENTEEN??? What do you DO with 17 cans of talc?

Let’s just say that it was years before I purchased a can of talc. Years. And my then-very-little children smelled very pretty after their baths for a few years, too. (At least until my son got old enough not to want to smell like a flower…) So, yes, there can be too much of a good thing, and a little good-natured chortling over the excess is not inappropriate.

But this wasn’t good-natured. The caregiver was actively annoyed, acting as if her clients had crossed some obvious line. As if everyone should know that toiletries are unwelcome. As if everyone dislikes toiletries.

I’ve heard other women make the same sorts of complaint about gift certificates to restaurants. “Why would I want to go out? As if, after an exhausting day of looking after their children, I have the energy to get cleaned up and go out!!”

Yeah, really. A night off from cooking. How unreasonable and thoughtless of those parents…

Why do we do this? It’s obnoxious. And ungrateful. People are not mind-readers. How are they to know what your particular quirks are?

Unless they ask, of course. When asked, I suggest a few items from varying price ranges. A few years ago, one parent asked me whether I preferred something for myself, or for the daycare.

“For myself,” I answered. “Presents for the daycare are work items. I like having them, but I have to have them anyway, and if I buy them myself at least I get the tax deduction. So, me, I prefer something a little frivolous.” And then I rhymed off a few possibilities for her, to give her an idea of my preferences. (Now don’t go taking this as a hard-and-fast rule. ALL caregivers don’t feel this way. Some are thrilled when their parents provide craft supplies or toys. I’m just not one of them.)

Not that the parents would ever know that, unless they asked. A gift is a gift, and it’s the thought that counts. It doesn’t mean, as other caregivers have complained, that “they don’t consider me an individual. All I am to them is ‘the daycare lady’.” It does not! It means that they appreciate you, and they want to express that… and possibly that they don’t really know you all that well personally. You’re client and caregiver, you’re not BFF.

So quit with the bitching. Honest to pete.

“Something for me,” I said, and gave her some suggestions.

“So, something for you,” she echoed, and I nodded. When the gift-giving event rolled around a couple of weeks later I opened my parcel and found… three wooden tray puzzles.

Okay. It’s one thing to give something that misses the mark because you don’t know a person’s preferences. But why ask if you’re going to ignore the answer?

“Aren’t they cute? And Ivan’s just loving puzzles these days. I know the kids will get a lot of fun out of these.”

Yes. The kids will. But you asked me what I wanted.

In the split second between stimulus and response, I had about six different reactions. Disappointment, first and foremost. Puzzles? Boo! On the other hand, if she hadn’t asked, I would have thanked her without a trace of negative feeling. On the other other hand, she had asked, so now I’m feeling over-ruled in the matter of my own gift. Disregarded, even. But then again, it would feel totally wrong so say “But I told you I wanted something frivolous and personal!” What an ungrateful whiner! But she asked and then ignored me. How rude!

You see my dilemma? My mother raised me well, though, so I pasted on a smile and thanked her warmly. When in doubt, be nice.

She presented me with another package a couple of months later. Clearly, she was a generous woman. Most of my clients give a gift at Christmas, and that’s that. Very few give gifts at other times, so this was a nice gesture, and the generosity was appreciated.

And it was… something else for the daycare. Okay. That’s twice now you have completely ignored my expressed preferences… after asking me what they were. Is this rude? I felt like it was kind of rude. Now I’m just wishing she hadn’t asked in the first place, and spared me all this angst. Because, really, what was the point?

I smiled. “Thank you! I’m sure the kids will love this. Do you think…” I paused momentarily, then continued. “Do you think I could have the receipt for this? Then I could claim it as a business expense.” (Yes, yes, I know. I didn’t spend the money, I shouldn’t make the claim. I wasn’t going to. I was making a point. A devious, indirect point, but a point nonetheless. Because, people, she had asked.)

She looked a little disappointed. “Well, I guess so, but then it doesn’t feel so much like a gift.”

In the meantime, as soon as the words fell from my lips, I felt acutely uncomfortable. She had given me a gift, after all, and even though she had completely disregarded the input she had asked of me, I’m starting to feel more than a little mean-spirited. I’ve given myself the opportunity to address my issue. I could look at her evenly and say, “No, it doesn’t feel much like a gift. Remember how I told you when you asked, that to me, gifts are for the person, not for their job?” I could say that… but, no… I can’t. I just.can’ it. She’s been thoughtless, perhaps, even a bit rude, maybe, but for me to say that would feel horrifically ungrateful and, worse, unkind. Can’t do it. So I decide to let us both off the hook.

“No, no, you’re quite right. Forget I asked.” We both sigh in relief.

And the next time I received a gift from her?

Doll-house furniture.

You know, there comes a point when you just have to Let It Go. And so I did. Hello, pretty, good-quality doll-house furniture, goodbye possibility of a nice pair of earrings or a concert ticket to the NAC.

After all, a gift is a gift is a gift.



October 5, 2010 - Posted by | daycare, parents | , , , , ,


  1. How frustrating.

    I could decorate a whole Christmas tree with the number of “#1 Teacher” and apple ornaments I received in only 6 years of teaching. But I remember exactly who gave me the gorgeous wedgwood wreath ornament and when I put it on the tree each year I think about him and how old he’d be.

    I also got a lot of soap, though. And a lot of Vietnamese food (can’t complain about that!!).

    Now I’m a mom with kids’ teachers. I never get things for their classrooms for the same reasons you list here. Usually I go with gift certificates to restaurants (or in the case of Miss Anne, the local pub). I make sure to make the certificate large enough to cover dinner for two without them having to spend their own money, as well. That’s for end of the year; at Christmas, everyone gets fudge and cash (or peanut brittle and cash for Miss Anne–she’s been one of our teachers for 3 years now).

    The other thing I make sure I do is give an equivalent amount to each teacher AND each assistant teacher (so that’s 4 teachers total this Christmas). I’ve been an assistant!! And teachers, they talk to each other.

    Comment by Bridgett | October 6, 2010 | Reply

  2. Ooo, I wish I were brave enough to ask! We adore our daycare teachers and we always get them something for Christmas and often something at the end of the year too. But I feel like if I asked, they would say they don’t need gifts, anything at all is fine, etc., etc. So we’ve done a big variety of baked goodies, exceptionally fancy chocolates and a bottle of wine for each, the year I was feeling brave. This is our last year with them (sniff!) so maybe I will ask…..

    I get the elementary teachers gift certificates. They can decide if they want school supplies or something for themselves.

    Comment by Sarah | October 6, 2010 | Reply

  3. We tend toward gift certificates to Amazon or asking if there is anyplace locally that they would like.
    It can be unnerving as a parent. I mean, some of the teachers are very personable and I feel very comfortable asking. Some of the others? While I think their skills with the kids are outstanding, I never felt super comfortable myself.

    Anyway my favorite thing is to be able to give something that will really mean something but truthfully it’s just not always possible. My favorite gifts (that I’ve given) were a set of sculptures made from nails and recycled metal for our son’s infant teachers. (they’re about 3 inches tall and were custom made to look like a caregiver feeding a little one in a highchair and the other was reading a book to a circle of little ones.)
    Also, for our two most favorite caregivers, I made a scrapbook page of them with our son and I got permission from the other parents to include their kids as well and had it framed for them.
    Sorry for the rambling…

    Comment by Dani | October 6, 2010 | Reply

  4. I am a family childcare provider and just discovered your site a few days ago. I enjoy your style of writing; It speaks well to those in the ECE field. I will be visiting more often!

    Comment by Jesse | October 6, 2010 | Reply

  5. I am a family child care provider also. You are right, everyone is different. I wouldn’t mind receiving items for my program. However I would be extremely frustrated if I received them after I had told the parent that I would like something personal. The gifts that bother me are the thoughtless ones. The smashed, crumpled, something that appears to have been a pre-assembled gift basket at one time or another that was bought three years ago at an after Christmas sale at 90% bothers me or the size medium sweatshirt with kittens on the front, when I am obviously in the size XXL category. However, I do try to have a smile and be nice. 🙂

    Comment by chantelle | October 7, 2010 | Reply

  6. I just give cash. I hate to dictate their spending with a gift certificate. $40 per teacher & assistant at Xmas and at the end of the school year.

    Comment by Rayne of Terror | October 7, 2010 | Reply

  7. The only ones that really annoy me are the deeply religious greeting cards with no personalized message inside. It just feels like they’re proselytizing rather than trying to do something nice for me. (If they write a note inside about, say, how much they appreciate the work I’ve been doing with their son/daughter or something like that I don’t feel that way. It’s the ones who seem to be using Christmas as an excuse to spam how Jesus-positive they are that get my goat.)

    I’m allergic to pretty much everything scented so those things wouldn’t get used (I’ve got a backlog I need to donate somewhere, actually), but I wouldn’t be annoyed about them.

    Comment by A | October 8, 2010 | Reply

  8. I try to be pleasant about any gifts that parents give. Luckily, most of my parents give a visa gift card(nice…I can spend it anywhere)with a container of treats(cookies, popcorn, ect…nice…I can give it to the children). There is one family that insists on giving scented stuff(my son & I are very allergic)every year(for the last 6 years)I thank them nicely. After one week I donate it to goodwill. I don’t re-gift scented items.

    Comment by Theresa | October 12, 2010 | Reply

  9. I don’t do daycare, and I don’t do massage anymore, so I don’t have this problem, but I totally see what you are saying.

    Honestly, she reminds me of my mother-in-law. The woman means well, but she doesn’t *listen*. It is entirely possible that she just assumed before asking that of COURSE you would say you wanted something for the daycare, so she didn’t hear you say you wanted something frivilous and personal. My MIL does this to me ALL.THE.TIME. She gets an idea about something and nothing will change her mind. Any words to the contrary bounce of her frickin forehead.

    I’m still a little irritated by it, if you can’t tell. 🙂

    Comment by MJ | October 17, 2010 | Reply

  10. I read a newspaper article a while back about the one-upmanship displayed in gifts to teachers at some schools by their wealthier pupils’ parents. Such as opera tickets, expensive Jo Malone toiletries, Fortnum and Mason hampers. Around here, it’s more likely to be a box of chocolates or a scented candle, possibly a bottle of wine.

    A lot of people don’t listen. I agree with MJ, I suspect that she genuinely thinks you said stuff for the daycare. What a pity, as she’s so generous!

    Comment by Z | October 19, 2010 | Reply

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