Sophie can feel the chill coming off the other parents at the playground. And it’s all because of a Christmas gift.
The anonymous mom from New South Wales explained to Kidspot that when her son was in preschool, not everyone gave the teacher Christmas presents. And those who did kept the gifts small and inexpensive: “If you did it — then you did. But if you didn’t — it wasn’t the same pressure, it wasn’t about the money.”
Sophie had no reason to know that things changed when her son got to kindergarten.
In October, she received a Facebook message: the parents were getting together to buy a group Christmas gift. And not just any gift — they wanted to raise enough to get the teacher a gourmet weekend away at a winery.
Sophie thought a luxury trip was a bit much, so she declined to participate. She told Kidspot:
“It seemed very excessive to give teachers such expensive presents, so I said no.”
However, while Sophie may have opted-out, the rest of the parents are taking teacher gift-giving very seriously. Not only are they donating about $50 each toward the winery trip, they’re supplementing that with individual gifts like movie tickets and spa certificates.
Sophie told Kidspot she thinks things have become a bit “crazy”:
“I’ve never experienced anything like this before. I don’t know whether we are competing to be seen to be good parents or whether they don’t want to miss out because of the peer pressure.”
What’s more, she suspects that on some level, the people participating think it will benefit their children in class. She added, “It is more competitive now, where people want the best for their child in that they want that extra attention from the teacher and the way to do that is buying gifts.”
Then there’s the social pressure to give. Sophie says she knows some of the parents participating are doing so just to be part of the group. And that’s bad news for those who aren’t, including her.
She says she’s already noticed an air of judgment in the school pick-up line. And she’s gotten the cold shoulder on the playground from moms who were previously friendly to her.
Sophie has no problem blaming the group gift for the tension. She’s now worried that her son might start feeling the effects too — that he might get left out of birthday invitations and play dates because she didn’t participate.
Despite the fact that she feels pressure to give (or be part of) an expensive teacher gift, Sophie’s sticking to her guns. She told Kidspot she thinks it sets a troublesome precedent:
“If you give it to one teacher one year then you’ve got to do it for the whole of their school life — and that gets really expensive for parents. I know the teachers work hard but I don’t think they deserve a $500 pamper pack at a spa.”
Having decided not to, “give in to peer pressure,” Sophie wants to set a better example for her son. So she had him pick out a small, token gift for his teacher that he could wrap and present himself.
She says that this helps her son experience the joy of giving better than, “big wads of cash,” adding, “It shouldn’t be the expectation that they get expensive gifts every year.”
Sophie’s experience may be at the extreme end, but it’s far from unique.
In my neck of suburbia, teacher presents seem to vary between the cookie/small gift card tokens and larger presents that cap out around $50 a teacher. Group gifts tend to be focused more on those in specialty positions, like coaches, band leaders, choir instructors, and the like. But that’s where things get complicated.
If you’ve ever had the uncomfortable experience of being hit up to donate to an expensive group gift for someone who teaches your child, you know that things can get sticky. Personally, I’ve been part of several gift collections that topped out in the $600 to $1,000 range.
Did I give? Let’s put it this way: if I didn’t, I wouldn’t admit it here.
No matter how nice everyone involved is, there’s pressure to contribute. No one will admit it, but to say “no” is to make a statement on either your finances or your sense of team camaraderie. When you’re staring down the barrel of months or years of socializing with this parent group, it’s an act of courage to opt out.
But what about the propriety of getting that expensive gift in the first place? Why doesn’t anyone ask whether it’s a good idea to give someone such an expensive present in the first place?
I don’t disagree that a kind and generous impulse is a good thing. But when it comes to gifts — especially gifts to someone who is being paid — I think expensive gestures can have problematic implications.
I was raised with the (admittedly quaint) notion that you shouldn’t give someone a present that they can’t reciprocate. Otherwise, you run the risk of creating a sense of obligation and an unbalanced relationship.
As a corollary, it’s okay to give a more generous gift if you’re gifting down (i.e. boss to employee), but no one should be expected to give more than a token when gifting up. When a gift exchange is unbalanced, it creates a sense of social inequality. My kids’ teacher is not my employee. I don’t treat her that way. Why would I give her a Christmas bonus?
Incidentally, this is supposed to be guidance for reciprocal gift exchanges, such as Christmas or birthdays. Spontaneous acts of charity are a different matter.
And I suppose that’s what makes the extravagant teacher gift such an uncomfortable thing. Because something that big can’t help but create feelings of competitiveness and pressure among the participants. Because there’s no expectation that the teacher will reciprocate, it’s closer to an act of charity than a gift.
Which is why my kids’ teachers are going to have to be content with cards, cookies, and other tokens. My sister, a middle school teacher, likes gift cards at Christmas, though she would probably add that there are plenty of other stores and restaurants to choose. No need to just stick with Starbucks.
And I do think there’s something to be said for involving your child in the gift and picking something appropriate for a child to give a teacher. It’s unlikely that any teacher my children have is going to be bowled over by my awesome high-end gift.
But on the bright side, I won’t ever be in a position to give the teacher a hard time for my son’s English grade, considering she got that luxury winery trip out of me.