The inevitably incorrect personal politics of gift giving to teenagers

Holiday gift-giving is fraught with landmines, but no where are the bombs more likely to explode than in the sloppily guarded perimeter of a teenager.

Giving gifts to teenagers is an exercise in futility. Nothing and I mean nothing pleases them.

Babies are the best. They like the boxes more than whatever you put inside. Wrap up an empty box, and a 1-year-old is the happiest gift recipient in the room.

Toddlers are fun, especially when the toddler isn’t yours and the gift emits sound. Toddlers like noise makers like drunken New Year’s Eve revelers do — the more deafening the better.

Kids in grade school are easy to buy for: If they can read it, build with it or comb its hair, it’s a winner. Avoid anything they can wear (especially pajamas) and you’re good.

But teenagers, oh agony, there is nothing you can give a teenager to make them happy. Games? Talk to the hand — if it’s not electronic, it’s for babies. Clothes? Wrong size, wrong brand, wrong color. iTunes gift card? What, waste money on actually buying music?

Allow me to present Exhibit A: actual Christmas entries from my diaries in high school. I don’t reveal them here because I’m proud — they’re mortifying for more than the superfluous exclamation points and sentences that end with prepositions. I share them to reveal the impossibility of completely pleasing a teenager. A glimmer of positivity exists when I was 14, but all hope is gone by 16:

  • 1980 (just barely age 14): “Today was Christmas. You won’t believe this but I got a 10-speed bike!!!! I am really happy. I got a lot of other stuff: perfume, bathrobe, clothing and the such but I didn’t get the boots I was hoping for.”
  • 1981 (age 15): No diary entries regarding gifts or Christmas [boys, I’ve got all kinds of stuff about boys — you want to hear about boys?]
  • 1982 (age 16): “What a disappointing Christmas. I didn’t get any clothes. But I got  fluorescent red robe from Mom and Dad. Yuk!”
  • 1983 (age 17): “It’s Christmas Day and the only clothes I got were some Chic jeans. Otherwise, it’s been a wonderful Christmas.”
  • 1984 (age 18): “Yay. I got golf clubs. Whoopee-sh*t. Now I’ll have to buy a $75 golf membership. And beg Jill to golf with me. I also got a sweater vest that I have nothing to match with. Of course, that’s not what Christmas is about.”
  • 1985 (age 19): “Today we got up extremely early and opened presents. I got a lot of nice stuff. Not too bad. … Christmas depresses me. It is incredibly anti-climactic. And giving and getting gifts is so stupid.”

The feelings I put to words three decades ago show up on the faces of teenagers to whom I give gifts nowadays. When I first became a stepmother to teenagers with teenage cousins, I attempted to give gifts. This was proper holiday decorum in my family of origin: Who cares what they asked for, give gifts you think they need.

I clearly didn’t understand the gift giving rules of my new family. Those sad encounters were worse than the “nice stuff” that depressed me when I was 19. I learned that improvisation when giving gifts to teenagers translated into improvised explosive devices. Ka-boom.

I couldn’t take it. Despite my misgivings, I’ve settled on cash for teenagers in my stepfamily. Cash is good. Don’t give them a dinosaurish check (heavens, no!) and no amount of cash is gratitude worthy, but hey, a half-smiling shrug in response to cash is better than a snicker.

Now what about the teenage nephew in my family of origin? Can I limp along with giving gifts for which he didn’t ask (and risk the 1983 diary equivalent of a nasty Instagram post to his friends that mocks my whoopee-sh*t gifts)?

I don’t know what I’ll do except this: Know they won’t be teenagers forever. Don’t take anything personally. Invest in emotional Kevlar. Because yesterday’s improvised explosive devices with hair triggers will be tomorrow’s entertaining blog entries.


2 responses to “The inevitably incorrect personal politics of gift giving to teenagers

  1. You are so encouraging!

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