The Best Gift I Ever Gave Was an Empty Cardboard Box

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When my eldest son was two years old, I went behind a local appliance store and pulled from their dumpster a huge refrigerator box that I wrapped in newsprint and then adorned with colorful ribbons and bows. Christmas morning, my son was ecstatic to see this huge present next to the tree. We spent the rest of the day cutting doors and secret windows into the box, then using finger paints and crayons to colour the box inside and out. The box became a hideout, a bedroom, and later, a sled for outdoor fun. As the box deteriorated, we seemed to keep finding new ways to make use of the cardboard.

The only downside to the gift was the ‘tsk, tsk’ I heard from in-laws who thought I was being cheap. “That’s not a real gift,” I heard them say behind my back. They were, of course, wrong. It was a perfect gift because it did everything gift-giving is supposed to do.

First, it showed empathic attunement with my son. After all, he had no concept of money but he could easily appreciate the size of the gift, and the freedom he had to draw on it, cut it up, and eventually trounce it. In other words, the gift said clearly that I understood what he valued most.

Second, the gift helped me build my relationship with my son. It wasn’t just a gift that he used alone. It was an amusement that required my engagement with him, which I think was just as much of a gift as the box itself.

Third, it was developmentally appropriate. It wasn’t telling him to grow up, or be something other than who he was: a little kid with lots of energy and a penchant for pushing things over and destroying things when he got angry. The box was indestructible, with no rules attached. He could do what he wanted with it without any stress whatsoever.

I’ve often thought about that box. My son is now 30. Over the years, I noticed that the size of the gifts I’ve given him during the holidays have been steadily shrinking and the price tags getting larger (A Tonka truck when he was 5 gave way to Legos when he was 8, and finally a new phone when he was 16, each box smaller and more expensive). I’d like to think, though, that the lesson I learned from my son when he was two has helped make me a better gift-giver ever since. Quality over quantity. Gifts as relationship builders. Gifts that say, “I see you, and understand what you really need.”

Maybe it is as Adam Grant shows in his book, Give and Take. The Giver can benefit a great deal from the giving. We just need to talk back to social pressures and think about how a gift can be a relationship builder, a well-being promoter, and not an obligation that must be fulfilled.

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