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For Christmas, I Gave My Child An Empty Box

Good gifts should provide opportunities for self-expression, problem-solving

When my son was three years old, I remember feeling the pressure to buy him lots and lots of gifts at Christmas. I knew his grandparents were expecting my wife and I to stack presents high under our tree. I knew that they would likely add to that pile with a bunch of cute clothing and a toy or two at least. It all felt…overwhelming. Not just for me, but for my son as well. How many presents did a three year old need?

So I rebelled. Black Friday I went down to the local appliance store but instead of going inside, I went around back and looked inside the dumpster. There I found the perfect gift for my son. A humongous refrigerator box! I roped it to the top of my car and then, once home, wrapped it in newspaper and bright red ribbon. Christmas morning my son woke to a fabulous gift of an empty box and a package of washable markers.

Now I have nothing against presents, but what my son really needed developmentally wasn’t going to be found at the mall. At his age he needed to be stimulated and intellectually stretched. He needed opportunities to be active, creative and learn to problem-solve. The more I thought about what my son would value, the less reason I could see for standing in line on Black Friday and buying him the latest/hottest toy of the season.

That box went through many incarnations. It was first a house with a door cut out so he could crawl inside. Then it was tumbled on its side and became a space ship. Later it became the roof of a fort that he slept under. And finally, when the novelty faded, it made a terrific toboggan one snowy afternoon. Eventually it ended up in the recycling bin, but not before it had taught my son lots of powerful life lessons.

Of course, it wasn’t easy avoiding the condemnation I heard from my in-laws. It’s not that they said much, but I could feel it in their stares and not-so-subtle remarks. “Oh, is that all you got him?” I recall my son’s aunt asking when she came over for Christmas dinner.

I won’t deny feeling a little guilty about my clever gift, but that was all put aside when I saw my son enjoying it and practically ignoring the rest of the toys that were placed in front of him.

Now, I’m not against shopping. Over the years my son has received many great gifts. He’s had endless hours of fun with a plastic bulldozer that was half his size. And later, he and his sister bounced their hearts out on a trampoline in our backyard. When he reached adolescence there were gadgets and eventually cash gifts so he could do his own shopping, often for clothing, sometimes gifts that left me confused like a paintball gun. As he got even older, the gifts got smaller and (as every parent knows) more expensive. By the time he was 16, a few dollars towards a smartphone upgrade got the biggest smile. While those gifts might sound pretty conventional, you’ll notice I avoided the gaming systems or other toys that tend to promote unhealthy behaviors and sedentary lifestyles.

The gifts that I’ve been most proud to give are those that have:

1. Kept my child active and socially engaged.

2. Helped my child express himself and his creativity.

3. Helped my child understand the value of money, or given him opportunities to learn the life skills (like buying clothes and budgeting) that he’ll need later in life.

I wonder how many of those toys on the shelves of the big box stores this Black Friday will fit these criteria?

I’ll admit that I have another agenda here. I recently spent two days with some of the greatest minds in the world discussing how to promote child well-being on a global scale. I was awe-struck. There were famous child psychologists, human rights experts, medical doctors who had spent their careers studying the microbiome in our guts, neurologists who have advanced the science of epigenetics and neuroplasticity, policy makers and child advocates. While we all agreed children need the basics, no one ever mentioned the necessity of the deluge of gifts many children in high-income countries will experience this holiday season. Even worse, what we agreed all children needed (after the basics like food, education and healthcare) were opportunities to learn compassion, to feel both connected and independent, to exercise a sense of control, and to move their bodies. Globally, we worried about sedentary life styles and bad government policies. We worried about hucksters selling parents the false promises of Baby Einstein products. We swapped stories of innovative programs that engaged children in opportunities to tell their stories and remind us of what they really need.

Thinking back to that refrigerator box, I’m pretty sure I was on the right track after all.

I’ve also heard it said that it is somehow our duty to consume: “Empty boxes rescued from dumpsters don’t cost anything and they sure won’t help grow our economy.” I’m not so sure about that. How exactly a big screen television or an overly marketed plastic toy is benefiting people locally is a bit beyond me. Last month, before being at that meeting of experts, I was in Vietnam. While there, I drove through the industrialized north and saw an LG factory that was at least a half-mile long. There were 30,000 employees working there, their small scooters and motorcycles parked under plastic shelters the size of two football fields. The average salary of those workers is less than $250/month. When I hear people talk about renegotiating trade deals, do they really expect those jobs to return to us here in North America or England? And if they did, would we be willing to pay three times as much as we pay now for our televisions and other electronic Christmas gifts? I wonder, will all that consumption really benefit my community?

What’s the harm, then, in giving my son a box for Christmas? None that I can see. Instead, I’d be better to consider whether my gift gave my child what he really needed: a lifetime of resilience.