Help me write an inspirational note to a kid from a poor family
December 15, 2015 2:18 AM   Subscribe

This Christmas I'm taking part in an initiative to offer gifts to kids from poor families, that usually don't get any Christmas presents. I'm not sure who is receiving my gift, but I know it will be a boy between 12 and 17 years old. I'm going to offer a football, since it fits the age range, but I would like to include a written note to go with it, something inspirational and optimistic, relativizing the value of material stuff. Any suggestions?
posted by dfreire to Human Relations (30 answers total)
Or you could just let him enjoy the moment?

It's easy for people to say material stuff has relative value when they're sitting on piles of material stuff. It's kind of hard for a person with no material stuff to have to listen to it.

Maybe consider: "Merry Christmas! I hope you like it!"?
posted by A Terrible Llama at 2:22 AM on December 15, 2015 [134 favorites]

"You have brighter days ahead. Merry Christmas!"
posted by jbickers at 2:28 AM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think you should just wish them a Merry Christmas. Any "material goods are not that great!" stuff is going to come off as patronizing. I grew up poor and wealthier people often said these kinds of things and by the time I was 12 or so, I absolutely found it cringeworthy, offensive, and kind of mean, in a "wow check your privilege" sense.
posted by katyggls at 2:31 AM on December 15, 2015 [64 favorites]

Dear Kid
This is just a football from someone who can buy spare footballs. It's yours, do whatever you want with it.
If you don't like it, or don't need it, give it away or trade it for something. I only bought it so I could have an excuse to give you this note.
~ Dear Kid.
The toughest and strongest people in the world are those who are kind. They might not look like it on the outside but kindness is a solid core of strength shining through. I hope that whatever type of life you have, it is the type of life where you can build your strength in kindness.
posted by Thella at 2:34 AM on December 15, 2015 [15 favorites]

Please don't do this. Don't give a gift that comes with a lecture attached.

People who tell you not to place too much value on material goods have always had enough material goods.

Or to put it another way, contrary to popular opinion, money *can* buy happiness. It can buy dental care, and oil changes, and clothes decent enough to wear to an interview, and real food rather than processed junk. And a whole lot of other things that poor people are really unhappy about not having. So the last thing a poor person needs is to be told why they shouldn't really want those things.
posted by MexicanYenta at 2:44 AM on December 15, 2015 [170 favorites]

Yeah, what MexicanYenta said. Give money directly to someone if you want to do good.
posted by Thella at 2:56 AM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think one of the most tiresome parts of real poverty in the U.S. is the constant expectation that you will always be deeply grateful for whatever scraps richer people throw your way.

So I think it would be a lot kinder to just wish this kid a Merry Christmas and leave it at that.
posted by colfax at 3:14 AM on December 15, 2015 [49 favorites]

Nthing that this is not a good idea. The kid who's receiving this might not have a winter coat, for all you know.
posted by Metroid Baby at 3:39 AM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Most Toys for Tots programs remove gift wrap and cards anyways, so you should not become attached to the materials stuff of your proposed message.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 3:40 AM on December 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

Nthing all of the above.

If he's getting this gift, he's already engaged with some organization that is looking out for his wellbeing (whether that's a domestic violence shelter, a food bank, a church etc), and that means that there are adults around who know his particular family circumstances and can give advice and be role models for him.

You don't know him or his family circumstances. I've been racking my brains for something to say that wouldn't come across as patronizing or possibly triggering and I just can't think of anything.

I'm sorry that you're not getting the type of responses that you may have hoped for. But please allow yourself to feel good that you have given a kid a gift that he wouldn't otherwise have. That's more than most people do!

Merry Christmas / Happy Holidays to you and yours...
posted by finding.perdita at 3:48 AM on December 15, 2015 [9 favorites]

You don't know if the gift is being passed off as something from his parents or not. Adding a note, although a nice idea, could throw things off. Let your actions speak for you. Instead of including a note, include a gift card for a local sandwich shop. Boys that age eat a lot more than a poor family can provide for them. Even if his basic nutritional needs are met, he is most likely still hungry all the time.
posted by myselfasme at 6:22 AM on December 15, 2015 [10 favorites]

There isn't a universal experience of poverty. There isn't any one particular message this kid would benefit from hearing. I'm not sure any message at all is appropriate; you don't know that it's not going to be gift-wrapped by an adult in the home and given without mention that it wasn't the adult who purchased it.

I'd encourage maybe re-thinking the choice of present, too. I don't know any teenaged boys who are asking for footballs nowadays. This might be even worse if the kid lives in a poor neighbourhood where kids spend a lot of time indoors and there aren't a whole lot of empty fields around.

When I bought for teenaged boys off an "angel tree" I went with stuff like thick hoodies from a decent brand, school supplies that also had an element of "cool" to them, a multipack of mini cologne bottles, gift cards... Ask some young men you know what they want for Christmas; I would bet anything that "football" is not going to come up.
posted by kmennie at 6:24 AM on December 15, 2015 [39 favorites]

The kid also probably already knows the relative value of material stuff, at least as much as is typical for a kid. (Consider kids! When did you learn the relative value of material stuff? I'm still learning that, and I'm forty.)

I think there's this myth, fostered by elites, that poor people are ultra-materialistic ("killing each other for sneakers" was the particular racist framing when I was a kid; "looting" during Katrina, etc) and that therefore giving things to poor people is risky because "they" don't have the moral underpinnings to withstand the bright shininess of stuff.

But honestly: I grew up with a roof over my head and shoes on my feet, but much poorer than my peers; I've also spent a lot of time with friends who have struggled to stay housed and fed - people who were literally hungry, just hungry for enough regular food. Both they and I have always been able to appreciate the ordinary and/or non-material side of things just fine. I appreciated the hell, for instance, out of the first "nice" sweater I had (J Crew, nineties, that wool roll neck - it was my primary Christmas present and it cost a heart-stopping $59). That's not "non-material", but it's very reasonable and appropriate. Or my first really warm boots and coat - I appreciated those like goddamn.

I mean, let's unpack "appreciation". "I appreciate this sweater because it's a rare nice thing in my life" is materialist, yeah, but compare it to an allegedly "anti-materialist" thing like "I appreciate my experiences teaching the children of the poor during my gap yahre in the Himalayas; I learned so much about what is really important and I will therefore be a much better director of a large nonprofit".

"Merry Christmas - I hope you like it!" is best.

(I hope they're matching 'kids who would probably like sports equipment' with 'people who donate footballs'.)
posted by Frowner at 6:32 AM on December 15, 2015 [18 favorites]

You're a good person for trying to find the way to best express yourself. Optimism would be determined by the kid's individual circumstances; you don't know if this is a termpoarary situation or if this is the best off his family's ever been. The gift itself is the inspiration here. The words have already been given, the gift is a more tangible expression of it.

Seconding kmennie: a football might not be useful; we've done hoodies and excercise shorts for our sponsored family this year.
posted by RainyJay at 6:33 AM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Honestly... don't give a football. Not unless you *really* think this is a kid that hasn't ever gotten gifts from a community basket or something before.

My family is low-income. We've also helped operate the toy portion of our local Christmas basket program in our county with our Scout group for ten years. Until we moved just out of the county, my kids were yearly recipients.

In most areas, when funds are donated rather than gifts, there is a "shopping day" done by some of the organizers. Because sports balls are cheap and common, they're a go-to item during the shopping spree. But they're almost always placed in a younger age bracket then teens when the items are sorted by age, because of a couple reasons... 1) they're generally a $5-8 item at Walmart, 2) if a kid is interested in that sport, by the teen years, they already have one, 3) odds are, they received at least a couple sports balls as a grade school student.

So the teen reaction - whether they like or dislike football - is not likely to be happy, but dismay, because it's a gift that was only interesting until they opened it.

Don't get me wrong - every low-income parent out there appreciates that your heart is in the right place and you want to help - but think in a different direction than a football, please. If you know the area the kid is in and so can choose an appropriate location, and it's an accepted item, something like a movie theater or bowling gift card can be a really nice idea. If it must be a "toy" or clothing, choose something that isn't quite so common.

(And above posters are correct - depending on the particulars, it may be that the parents will present the gift as from them, or the recipient may be well aware where the gift came from.)
posted by stormyteal at 6:42 AM on December 15, 2015 [22 favorites]

I can tell that your heart is in the right place, which is great, but I think it's pretty much impossible to write a note to inspire a teen you've never met and whose circumstances you don't know. And I would like to echo everyone above who has said that "the value of material goods" is directly proportional to the amount of material goods in your life.

This is how I personally do gift-giving of this sort:

The tree that I choose cards from to buy gifts is utterly heartbreaking. Last year, the whole tree was moms asking for diapers, except for one mom who asked for Windex, Pine Sol, and Lysol spray (that was last year's heartbreaker). This year, I took cards from a mom asking for a bathmat, and (this year's heartbreaker) a teen girl asking for a bed pillow and a pillowcase. And also a little kid asking for a My Little Pony, because I selfishly wanted to buy one gift that didn't make me feel sad.

My solution for people who are asking for something distressingly practical is to get them what they asked for, plus a little extra that's.. not frivolous, but a little more indulgent? So, diapers PLUS a set of bath toys. Cleaning supplies / bathmat PLUS a nice hand lotion gift set; bed pillow PLUS lip gloss, pocket hand lotion, and a tiny troll doll. For the My Little Pony, I got a nice fold-and-go playset plus an extra pony - I wanted something that would be really exciting (not just "a pony") but also something that would fold away neatly in case they don't have a lot of space.

IMO, the best way to express your appreciation is to throw in a little extra. The sandwich shop / nearby eatery gift card that myselfasme suggested is a great idea for a teen boy.
posted by telepanda at 7:29 AM on December 15, 2015 [36 favorites]

It's really nice of you to take part in this initiative. If gift cards are acceptable, I suggest that, to a very big, general purpose store that the kid can hopefully get to. I also like the idea of movie theaters or bowling alleys are even a fun food place.
posted by BibiRose at 7:44 AM on December 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

Please do not play Lord Bountiful. A gift that comes with a lecture attached is not a gift. It is pompous and self-serving.
posted by uans at 8:09 AM on December 15, 2015 [6 favorites]

Agree with everyone else about the note, but if you haven't already bought the football, a gift card from Target or some other local store with a big selection would be better. Then he can pick out a new shirt, a video game, lots of candy, winter gloves, or whatever else he needs/wants.
posted by jabes at 8:16 AM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

as someone who used to be this kid - i think you're very kind for doing this but please don't write the note you want to write.

also, about gift cards - generally a great idea for teen gifts - but in this situation where you don't know his circumstances, you don't know that the gift card will make it to him or that he'll get to keep it.
posted by nadawi at 8:20 AM on December 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

Wow, no. Don't do this. Write "Merry Christmas, I hope you enjoy this" and nothing else.

Also, a football is a super stereotypical, highly gendered, teen boy gift. You don't know e.g. that this kid isn't a musician, or physically unable to play football, or totally uninterested in football, or loves football but won't play because he's queer and the other boys are jerks, or or or. Perhaps rethink this specific gift.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:48 AM on December 15, 2015 [7 favorites]

I know you're getting piled on OP, but I have to add my voice to the chorus as an ex-poor kid who got Salvation Army donated presents every year. They came with pajamas, which were some of the only "real" pajamas I ever had once I grew out of baby clothes. I also got some books, which I loved.

Being poor has a weird relationship to materialism. On the one hand, I am way less materialistic (and way less obsessed with Purell) than my middle-class friends. My friends' families seem to alternate between states of 1) trying to buy happiness by emulating the upper-middle class and 2) trying to eschew all material goods to make themselves feel pure. On the other hand, I grew up in a family where presents weren't particularly expensive, but people loved giving and receiving them. Which is, you know, as old as human society.

On the other other hand, I have terrible money/spending habits which are only now shaping up as I approach 30, which is also common among the ex-poor. But a lecture on spending habits is a little inappropriate.

I really don't know any poor kids I grew up with who are like, super materialistic, unless they moved up the social ladder and became moreso in order to fit in around their peers. I didn't have a winter jacket throughout all of high school, even when I had a job (because there were always more pressing things, like paying for school trips or a TI-89 calculator). So I'm coming from that perspective.

Oh, and yeah, as a poor kid in a family of five girls, even we had a football. A football is kind of lame. What a poor kid is maybe less likely to receive is something fun but related to their mind. I know that's tough when you don't know the kid, but even a harmonica with a Learn to Play Harmonica booklet would be more special. (Heh, sorry parents.) I would maybe brainstorm a little.

It's nice of you to be thoughtful about this.
posted by easter queen at 10:59 AM on December 15, 2015 [5 favorites]

Please don't include a note. You don't know if this is going to be presented as being from his parents. Also, a football is kind of stereotypical and might be something he can already access. And he might not be into athletics or might be the kind of kid others bully when he tries sports. And you need space and friends to play with a football. If you live in a cramped apartment, a football isn't much good. If your school is inner city, you might not have anywhere to play it. I would go with something more likely to be used. And I'd include the gift receipt, so he can exchange it. And pick a store that is very accessible by transit and maybe include two transit tickets, just in case. Another idea is a movie ticket, along with a couple of transit tickets.

Thanks for being so thoughtful and kind.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:20 AM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh, and to clarify because I realized that came off a little classist and weird: I don't mean get them something enriching for their mind because poor people are stupid and won't buy a book for their kids (though poor kids usually do grow up around fewer books/less vocabulary and suffer for it), I mean that there are certain things that are in abundance in thrift shops, etc., and footballs and other reusable toys are one of them. Things that go to waste or get dirty or you wouldn't want to share (like a harmonica, or a cool journal, or art/craft supplies) are less abundant, and maybe a more special gift.

(Also abundant are, actually, books, even pretty good ones. But the kid might not really get that many recommendations for "good books." I got the occasional recommendation from my librarian, but otherwise my family was willing and happy to encourage my reading habit, but couldn't do much to guide me.)
posted by easter queen at 12:34 PM on December 15, 2015

Don't do the note.

Also, if football or sports was mentioned, maybe consider a jersey or other gear for a local team. I never played sports but I liked wearing stuff for my home team. Otherwise, the gift card is a good idea, if you're allowed to send one.
posted by bgal81 at 12:46 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just n'thing everyone who has said no about the football. Experience: I have 6 brothers currently ages 14-29, and have been buying gifts for teenaged boys for fifteen years.
posted by celtalitha at 12:52 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for your answers, I really appreciated them.

It is definitely not my intention to lecture the kid about how I think he should react to the gift (or to his life circumstances in general).

After reading your answers, I reckon that a simple note (or no note at all) is better. Just by random chance I could write something that a) doesn't sound patronizing, b) it is relevant to the boy that receives the gift, and c) it is meaningful to that particular boy.

Indeed I do not know if the gift is going to be presented as if coming from his parents, thank you for mentioning this, I'll need to check it.

I also appreciate your concern regarding the football, although I'm pretty confident that in this context it will be ok, nevertheless I'll check with other people involved. (Unfortunately a gift card is not an option in this context.)
posted by dfreire at 1:17 PM on December 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

If these kids are anything like mine, they won't read the note anyway. :)
posted by bluedaisy at 8:08 PM on December 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree with all the responses that suggest keeping it simple with a "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays". Maybe instead of focusing on inspiring him, you could shift the focus on inspiring others in your circle of friends, co-workers, etc. to take part in similar initiatives by letting them know how good it feels to give! Also, if you want to take it a step further, perhaps think about what it was that inspired you to give? If what inspired you is an interest in helping to address poverty, as a poor person, I would be more inspired by someone who cared about the issues and did their best to educate themselves on some of the root causes of poverty rather than receive an inspirational note from someone who doesn't know me or what makes me feel inspired or optimistic. I think it's great that you posted the question and hope the feedback you received is helpful!
posted by Autumn in New York at 8:03 PM on December 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

Maybe instead of focusing on inspiring him, you could shift the focus on inspiring others in your circle of friends, co-workers, etc. to take part in similar initiatives by letting them know how good it feels to give!

Oh! I love this. Yes. This is where the impulse to inspire should be directed.
posted by jaguar at 8:33 PM on December 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

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