June 3, 2009

Don't Feed the Animals! (Part II)

Gift-giving must be as old as humanity itself. Among us social animals, it’s shorthand for “You are special to me.” Human communities have fairly elaborate gift-giving rituals. So why then, have I taken such drastic steps to eliminate this veritable torrent of stuff that well-meaning people are constantly pressing on Hart and Jeff? I can only report how repellent I find this continuous stream of presents. I must be the most awful, hateful parent to try to stamp out the gifts, toys, goodies and treats. I write memoranda (to all teachers every year), lecture to sitters and caregivers, email preliminary notes to camp counselors. All my efforts are fruitless anyway.

I have a few theories about my strong feelings about this.

The nightmare of every adoptive parent is Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Untreated attachment issues are a straight road to sociopathology. Toddlers who have spent most of their early lives competing with others for care and attention, as Hart and Jeff did, are the worst opportunists: food and individual attention in an orphanage are scarce. They are survivalists because they have to be. I have spent over a decade reminding the boys in an endless litany that I provide things for them, because I am their mother and I love them, “that‘s what moms do,” only to be undermined by many well-meaning, but clueless, adults in their lives.

As a result of this early deprivation, the boys feel a sense of entitlement that is a source of constant mortification to me. If a caregiver brings a cookie once, you can bet that Jeff will ask, “Where’s my cookie?” before saying hello on every subsequent visit. To caregivers’ surprise, I step in, and announce gently, “That was very kind of you. Please do not do it again.” The boys’ habit got so bad a few years ago with a number of babysitters that I told Hart and Jeff directly many times, “She has her own children to take care of and buy things for. That’s how she uses the money I pay her. It’s MY JOB to provide things for you.”

One might think that with all this largesse coming their way, the boys would be gracious gift receivers. They aren’t. If I allowed it, every thank-you note Jeff ever wrote would begin “Thank you for the car. I have already broken it.” And if the goods aren’t forthcoming, Jeff will demand them. In fact, I considered writing ahead to our hosts in London and Copenhagen to warn them. I would have done it if I could have thought of any reasonably polite way to say, “Thank you so much for your hospitality. Jeff is sure to sniff out any toy cars in your house. Please do not give him any when he finds them.” Miss Manners and Emily Post are both surprisingly silent on this subject.

Would it be nice if Jeff donated or shared some of his extensive collection of cars? It would be, if he hadn’t outsmarted a number of adults with a clever ploy. When a respite worker suggested choosing a few (hundred) toy cars to donate, Jeff was eager to comply; I quickly realized this was an excuse for Jeff to spend three hours, lovingly going over each and every one of his cars before deciding he could not part with any but the completely broken ones. Scammed again!

When his little cousin visited, Jeff asked me if he could give Julian some cars. I was then appalled to hear Jeff evaluate each one carefully. “Here, Julian, take this one, it’s totally broken. And this one, it’s a piece of crap. These two, they are jalopies now.” Note to self: work on gracious gift-giving, too!

In a word, these unsolicited gifts are nothing but trouble. There’s a momentary emotional pay-off for the giver, I am sure, but I have had to deal with years of disciplinary measures related to the booty: toy cars, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh cards and toy horses. The cards and cars are contraband at Jeff’s school now, which explains why all his classmates unload them on him. This has driven the trade underground. The idea was to discourage the distraction at school, of course, but the result it that it has made Jeff wilier. If there is a troublesome toy in our home, you can bet it was from well-meaning classmate, teacher or caregiver. Large toy horse? Check. Furry blankets, the source of much twin hysteria? Check. $20? Jeff stole some of Hart’s cards and “sold” them at school.

Here is the real question: Are my children so needy, so pathetic that almost everyone who is in contact with them showers them with gifts? Do they imagine that the boys are consigned to life to want, despair and drudgery, if they don’t provide goodies for them?

Here is a question I want answered: I want to know if “regular” kids get this much unsolicited stuff, or are “disabled” children somehow more deserving?

Maybe I am jealous. I cannot remember a single time outside of a birthday party when non-relative bought me something. If memory serves, I still had plenty of stuff.


Anonymous said...

Hi Lydia,
i can tell you from what i recognise here with my nephews that the get lots and lots of unnecessary gifts as well; cars, tractors in any sizes!, different stuff of Pinnie the Pooh etc., depending who is the donee. Especially from grandma and their well-meaning sisters (having no own kids) but from friends and others as well.
The problem i see is that, especially the 3rd youngest one, have to get to know that life is not meant to be just to say 'i want this' and immediately gets it. You've to work for it. I hope that they will find their way when they are grown up and start with their job life.

Roberta said...

I think there's more compensatory giving these days: if it's someone's birthday, all the sibs get a gift as well. Maybe the twins get double the loot because no one wants to give just one toy to two kids? I find myself thinking, "Oh, if I send a birthday gift, shouldn't I send a little something for the other kids too?" But you might be right. They might get more stuff because they're special needs. That's some kind of guilt or sympathy working itself out. Ben had the original doting Grandma, but she limited herself to trinkets and appropriate occasions.

runciblespn said...

Last night, the day after I posted this, our synagogue custodian, a frequent purveyor of goodies for Jeff, "found" new cars for him. Grrrrr. On the positive side, Jeff said he must replenish V's car supply for "the other kids."

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. On the one hand, the boys are both attractive and affluent kids, and present well. So on the scale of "pitiful disabled kids" they'd probably appear on the more privileged side. So I don't think it's primarily out of a sense of pity that people give them stuff. It might be there a *little* (or else people would give every cute little kid stuff), but not overwhelmingly so.

I think it's more about the gratification of the gift-giver. It's so easy. Give Hart an elephant or Jeff a car, and it's a slam-dunk win. Even if their interest in the particular gift wanes quickly, for the 5 minutes they *are* interested -- the boys' delight in the gift is real. What people *don't* realize is the lasting ramifications of the gifts -- how they can add to distractions, cause fights between the boys or their schoolmates, etc.


Anonymous said...

I would also say that the gift giving springs less from a sense of pity than from the pure pleasure of the boys' unbounded and genuine joy (however brief). It is refreshing as it is far more than you would get from most kids these days. I know that I would not consider sending a box of breakfast cereal across the Atlantic for any other child...but would do this ridiculous thing for Jeff because I know it would thrill him.

However, I would suggest that I would not do it even for him if not for my affection for his Mom...So, misguided maybe, but I would venture that most of the gifts come with a sidebar of love for you?


runciblespn said...

M-I confess I never thought of that!