THE BLOG

And the Best Holiday Gift Was...

01/03/2012 04:18 pm ET | Updated Mar 04, 2012

The neon teal of the little box tickled the baby's fancy. The box itself fit snugly inside her petite fist. She held it to her nose, and I think the faint aroma of fresh mint cast a spell of serenity that flowed from her insides outward. She quietly examined the wee package from all angles. Finally, as she does with every toy or tchotchke presented to her, she brought the box to her mouth and chomped down on it. The chomping was what sealed the deal. I had given my five-month-old granddaughter the jackpot gift of the year. All the gifts she received from hordes of besotted admirers were chicken feed compared to my gift... a slightly used package of dental floss.

The gift was an unpremeditated move on my part. I was undressing her for her bath and she began to whimper. My singing did not soothe her. The whimpering soon gave way to a full-blown crying jag no grandmother can withstand. We were in the master bath, a floor above the toy-laden den, and the screeches precluded the folks downstairs from hearing my pleas for a toy with which to distract her. I grabbed the nearest harmless object, placed it in her clenched fist, and made a friend for life.

Meanwhile, the den below us was a disgusting display of rampant consumerism. I had gone completely overboard with baby gifts. Having waited almost 30 years for another female in the family, I amassed dresses and pink stuffed animals and little Mary Janes and ballet paraphernalia with unrepentant zeal. The pièce de résistance was a pink car she can tool around the house in when she's a little older. (I was told it's a Cadillac, but after painstaking research the family reached a consensus that it's a Mini Cooper). She beheld it with the insouciance of an English major perusing the syllabus of a required physics class. It was certainly no box of dental floss!

Why do we shower babies with gifts they neither appreciate nor remember? For that matter, why do we insist upon gift giving at all when we have about a 50/50 shot of giving the recipient something they would really like?

We give gifts because giving makes us feel good. Not only that, according to psychologists, giving is a gift we give to ourselves. Most of us want to be loved, but as psychologist Erich Fromm points out, it is actually the act of loving that is the most rewarding. Being loved is important mostly because it facilitates our abilities and opportunities to love. When we love, we give, and when we give we feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Surely, this theory is evident when we lavish gifts upon babies who have no idea of the thought or care we put into choosing the perfect present. How many times have we heard parents sigh, "I gave my baby such a wonderful present, but she only wanted to play with the box?" This discovery rarely, if ever, propels parents into bestowing empty crates upon their children at birthday time. While a child might be thrilled, her parents would feel woefully inadequate.

We tend to believe the more we care about someone the more we want to give to that person. More interesting than that however, is the notion that the more we give to certain individuals, the more we come to care about them. Social psychologist Daryl Bern, Ph.D., says we deduce our attitudes from our behavior. "I must really care or else why would I have given such a meaningful gift?"

Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University studied gift giving by pet owners and found that the owners had a natural desire to make their pets happy by offering gifts that would improve a pet's comfort or wellbeing. Obviously, they had no hope of reciprocation from the animals. The research may seem frivolous, but it does give insight into the self-serving nature of giving. It shows that much pleasure is to be gained by giving a gift.

Fortunately, we experience the same feelings of usefulness and caring when we give to strangers or the less fortunate as we do when we gift those closest to our hearts. Giving material gifts to those in need as well as gifts of time and service should be a critical component of family life.

My kids brought the dental floss with them for the cross-country plane ride home. They hoped it would keep the baby calm. It worked for a few hours until she found an empty plastic cup to be far more fascinating. I'm going to bring her a stack of those cups when I visit in February. Along with some toys and clothing she neither wants or needs.