Holidays!

Published on December 2nd, 2014 | by Shannon Reed

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NO MORE HANDPRINT MUGS: Shannon Reed On Holidays

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Or it would be, could be, if we could just let go of some of the insane expectations placed on mothers during the holidays. As a former teacher, I’m here to assure you: I don’t want your child’s handprint on a mug. And I’m betting you don’t really want to take the time to make one.

For some of you, that might sound harsh. I have an image in my mind of you, dear reader, glancing gleefully over at your newly purchased blank mugs and primary colored paints. So, let me say, right from the beginning, that if you are determined to give your child’s teacher a “handmade gift,” I cannot stand in your way. I know your crafts will be received with polite good humor.

All I can tell you is that at every school I ever worked at, some of the teachers opened their gifts over the trash can, discarding as they found appropriate before leaving to start their break. Your mug may not even make it out of the classroom.

I was not quite that pragmatic. Over my 10 years of teaching, I turned my spare room in my Brooklyn apartment into what I called the Depository of Misplaced Affections. There lived a dozen hand-printed mugs; several lavishly framed canvases covered in expensive daubs of oil paints with a child’s “signature” amended by a parent at the bottom; an apron, covered in tiny gold feet; one of the worst photos ever taken of me next to a child, turned into a mousepad; and, the coupe de grace, a tile trivet with a baked-in self-portrait by a child whose name I could no longer remember, although the large yellow blob she used to represent herself seems familiar. All of these gifts gathered dust until I moved three years ago, when they left their stay in limbo for the trash pile.

Seattle Municipal Archives (flickr/creative commons)

Seattle Municipal Archives (flickr/creative commons)

There are caveats, of course. Allowances can be made. Perhaps you are an award-winning artist, who would like to collaborate with your child. This happened to me once, actually; the mother painted a gorgeous photo frame and the daughter provided a small piece of artwork. After an appropriate interval of time, I replaced the artwork with a photo of my Godchildren, and the frame is still in use in my home. A truly lovely gift.

Or perhaps you are certain that your child is deeply special to the teacher and you have some sort of proof of this, preferably along the lines of the teacher pulling you aside on multiple occasions to say “Your child is deeply special to me!” If so, that teacher would probably love a gift made by your child.

We should also give a pass to those devoted crafters who insist on making gifts for everyone they have ever met. You are stalwart folks who, having spent days making a gift know the heart-crushing feeling that arises when its recipient says, “Thanks. It’s… nice.” You have lived with the fact that you have never seen your gift since. You know what to say to your child when they ask what happened to it. You know pain. If you wish to embrace it again, we salute you.

Otherwise, no. Stop. Don’t do it. There are two main reasons why not. First, as you probably already understand, giving a teacher a handmade gift is a cultural imperative, not an intrinsic expression of value. If you open an issue of many home and women’s magazines or scroll through Pinterest at this time of year, you’ll see dozens of self-proclaimed “great gifts to make for teachers.” Let’s be clear: these ideas have not been gathered from teachers. They have been dreamt up by people whose full-time job it is to make up stuff for moms to do. They create a need and then tell you how to fill you it. They give you an itch and then tell you how you must scratch. They put forth the idea that hand-made means more, is more impressive, holds the key to your child’s place in his teacher’s heart. They expect you to dredge up some semblance of craftiness when you are not a crafty person.

This is not fair, by the way. It assumes that not only do you have endless time to parent, but that you also have large blocks of time to take care of tasks that are, at best, adjacent to parenting. But you probably don’t. Because you have a job and/or other kids and/or aging parents and/or a myriad other demands on your time. What you might have is a free 45 minutes at the end of the day, time when you might like to read a book, watch TV or even talk to the other adults who live with you. You do not need to supplant that time with a session of crafting. This is the magazine’s idea of a need, not yours. Doing so won’t help your child. Or you.

Squishy Paint by Emma Craig (flickr/creative commons)

Squishy Paint by Emma Craig (flickr/creative commons)

Of course, this has nothing to do with teachers. These articles are feeding on mother’s anxiety about image, adding to the ever-growing list of things you must do in order to be considered competent. This is a shame, not only because you should feel good about your parenting skills as is, but also because the gift serves no purpose except to proclaim to the teacher, “I am the kind of mom who feels obliged to give you a homemade gift, without concern about who you really are, what you do and what you might actually want.” Your uneasiness about the whole business is justified; you know that this isn’t right.

Which leads me to my second point about why you shouldn’t give your child’s teacher a mug with her handprint on it. You’re confusing your child’s relationship with her teacher and your child’s relationship with her grandparents, godparents, devoted family friends, aunts, uncles, and so on. Teachers are not relatives. They do not love your child the same way you can reasonably expect any of those other folks to love your child. Stick with me, here, I’m about to get radical: It is your child’s teacher’s job to teach her.

Which means that while your child’s teacher may love him – and I certainly loved all of my students with varying degrees of vigor – they do not love only him or mostly him. They do not, cannot, love him in the same way his grandparents do. The teacher likely has at least 15 other kids – possibly many more – to teach, and while you may perceive your child as the most important in the class, his teacher does not. Learning to share things, including beloved adults’ attention, is part of the point of school. This is a good thing!

A grandparent can be reasonably expected to adore and proudly show off a handprint mug. A teacher, who has taught 30 kids a year for the last 20 years, cannot be reasonably expected to line 300 handprint mugs on meager desk space.

Quiet Children by Kathy Cassidy, flickr creative commons

Quiet Children by Kathy Cassidy (flickr/creative commons)

Well then, I am sure you are asking, what should I give? Group gifts are nice, and a gift for the classroom – a 12 pack of tissues, a giant bottle of hand santizer, extra child-size scissors– is usually a good idea. A classroom aide might be able to suggest something if you don’t want to ask the teacher himself. To be more personal, I suggest you look to the teacher to tell you. Does she carry a coffee cup into the classroom every morning? A gift card to the nearest coffee shop would be appreciated. Does he mention, frequently, his affection for the local sports team? How about a gift card to their store? You might be able to sense my theme already: gift cards. They’re always good. I don’t even drink coffee, but I still liked getting a gift card to the coffee shop closest to my school: I could get a round for my co-teachers or pick up a muffin when I was running late. Even a card from an office supply store does the trick; you’d be amazed how much schools do not supply.

I see you easing back to the mugs. You’re thinking “An office supply gift card? So impersonal!” Wait! Don’t cave! It’s totally possible to make a gift of money or a gift card more meaningful.

What I loved to receive, and what every single teacher I ever knew absolutely loved, too, was a note from my students. When I taught preschool, I would cry when I opened the card and read a mom’s careful penmanship, taking dictation on my charms: “Shannon reads books that I like, thank you, Shannon.” When I taught high school, I wept at the notes I received directly from my students. Some of them were dashed down on notebook paper and shoved at me as the last bell of the year rang, a true, spontaneous expression of holiday cheer. When I emptied out the Depository, it was the box of notes that I kept and carried into my new apartment. Those are the gifts that touched my heart.

Please know: your child’s words, put down on paper, is gift enough. Attached to a gift card is nice, too.

And the grandparents will love that mug, right?

Sidewalk Art by mousetrout (flickr/creative commons)

Sidewalk Art by mousetrout (flickr/creative commons)

Feature image: “art” by lenchensmama (flickr/creative commons)

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About the Author

Shannon Reed

Shannon Reed taught preschool in Western Pennsylvania and Brooklyn, New York and high school in Queens and Brooklyn. She now teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has recently appeared in Vela Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and the Billfold, among others. She blogs at www.shannonreed.org



5 Responses to NO MORE HANDPRINT MUGS: Shannon Reed On Holidays

  1. JodyL says:

    TOTALLY rings true! I taught for 27 years, and every word of this piece hits home. I loved my students, and I did love receiving gifts, but the consumable ones really were fun and never cluttered. I do have a handmade giant square pottery tray (from a sweet 4th grader whose name totally escapes me) that I have been able to use for years as a potted plant base, but that is a rare exception. My best gifts now from former students? Their friendship on Facebook, going out for Happy Hours, and their kind words and memories.

  2. Mel says:

    I actually have pretty strong feelings about this topic. I think what’s sometimes behind the gift is something more offensive – patriarchal privilege. As if the parent is the lord of the manor giving one of the serfs a portrait of himself to remind the serf of what he’s fighting for in the Crusades. The serf/teacher as individual is invisible, only existing as he serves the lord’s purpose.

    At least that’s how it played out in my son’s preschool graduation gift to the teachers. $20-$40 from each parent to give a giant framed portrait of the kids. And it was one picture for two teachers who don’t live together, so they couldn’t even take home the frame and put something else in it.

    I know I sound cynical, but it’s just disappointment at how pervasive the lack of respect for teachers is.

  3. Jenn Jenn says:

    This made my day. I feel those pressures you describe. Thank you for confirming my suspicion that my son’s kindergarten teacher really doesn’t need a handmade craft from us. I will indeed reclaim those 45 minutes to hang out on the couch with my family.

  4. Mary says:

    As the mother of two young children, I have to say that your essay hit a nerve for me this year. I should back up and first say that I completely understand where you’re coming from regarding the handmade gifts. With 30 kids per year for many, many years, of course teachers don’t want that sort of clutter building up and a useful gift (like a gift card) is more appreciated. That makes complete sense. Most of the moms I know get this point and we typically go in together on larger group gift cards.

    However, I think you left out a couple really important points.

    1. Year after year, I’ve been growing more and more overwhelmed with the expectations placed on young families regarding holiday gift giving. Not only are we expected to make the season magical for our beloved immediate families with elaborate and expensive gifts, but the list of those we are expected to give to seems to grow and grow. Friends, co-workers, teachers, and basically every other service professional under the sun. And the gifts required get more and more elaborate. Home-baked cookies won’t do, no one wants more cookies. How about a $50 gift card for your kid’s teacher, hairdresser, lawn care professional, house cleaner, school janitor, etc. Just like teachers have a lot of kids, kids and their families have a big circle to give to. Who can afford all this? Not many. It was nice of you to close with a list of welcomed teacher gift ideas. What would have been even more nice would have been also say “or let yourself off the hook instead of giving a gift moms! Not only does Pinterest place crazy expectations on your time, but holiday commercialism places crazy expectations on your wallets. Gifts are always greatly appreciated but not necessary.”

    2. Also, what about the meaningfulness of the experience for the kids? My kids are little and if I do do a handmade gift for someone who doesn’t love the little monsters as much as their parents and grandparents, it’s not because I’m a crazy Pinterest mom, it’s because the kids WANT to. Kids love their teachers and making something is the way they know how to show their affection and appreciation. This type of gift lets the kids do the giving and I would hope it would at least bring a smile to a teacher’s face before it finds it’s way into the garbage. Our family doesn’t celebrate Christmas anyway, but no matter which winter holiday you celebrate (if any) there is more to the spirit of the season than giving presents and spending money and that is what some of us moms want to teach our kids.

    Teachers are hardworking and noble professionals who deserve our respect and appreciation. But more expensive gifts aren’t the only way to show that. I love what the commenter above said about the kind words and memories being the best gifts – that is the kind of spirit the holidays should be about! And that’s the kind of attitude I would hope my kids’ teachers have!

  5. Edie Bergstrom says:

    Perhaps I am on the unpopular side of this issue. After 31 years of kindergarten teaching, I have to disagree with some of your answers. First of all, as a teacher of young children, I know that a child has little or no Concept of financial value on Holiday gifts.

    To a 4-6 year child the most wonderful gift they can give is something that they made for that special person in their lives every day. If they can create something of their own to show their dear teachers how very special they are to them, they are so excited to present it to the teacher.

    A gift card does not mean a thing to a child. It’s a parent’s and teacher’s item that can buy something,
    not with any meaning to the child. Come on, let the kids make something that will show how much she thinks of you, not how much $ the parents think will impress.

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